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The Baltimore Sun

Is voting all about the 'ker-chunk'?

State's problems recall history of voting technology disputes

Oct. 22, 2006

For many Americans of a certain age, a trip to the polls conjures up a certain mechanical ritual - the big handle that closed that curtain, putting you in a secure private space; the solid feel of the metal levers that moved into position next to the chosen candidates; the closing theatrical gesture as the curtain opened and your vote was recorded.

"There was a satisfying 'ker-chunk' when you moved that lever back," says Bryan Pfaffenberger, a historian of technology at the University of Virginia. "You felt something physical had happened. You don't get that experience with the touch-screen systems."

The touch-screens Pfaffenberger was referring to are computerized voting systems that have swept the nation in response to a congressional mandate to produce more secure voting systems ...

Problems in Maryland's September primary ... have turned up the volume of the chorus questioning these new systems' reliability.

As those computerized systems have multiplied, so has a back-to-basics counter-movement, a return to one of the oldest election technologies - the paper ballot. ...


Truth be told, Pfaffenberger says, there is no fail-safe voting system. ...

"Throughout the history of voting technology, there are two different cultural beliefs about elections and technology," he says.

"One of those strongly believes that the way to solve the electoral problems is to impose a reliable modern technology and keep humans out of the process as much as possible. There has always been a contrasting perspective that says we should not trust this technology, that it is capable of making mistakes and that the community must be involved."

Critics of computerized voting argue that humans are too far removed from the process, that an election could be stolen - or compromised - either by an undetectable cyber-crime, or by some code-writing goof-up, invisible to human eyes. ...

But beyond that is the missing "ker-chunk," the comfort of old technology.


Our comfort level with the lever machines is probably due more to familiarity than to anything else. ...

And, in fact, voters were not all that comfortable with the lever-action machine when it was introduced in New York state in the late 19th century.

"It's exactly the same response today that was heard 100 years ago," says Douglas W. Jones, a computer scientist who specializes in election technology at the University of Iowa. "Those machines were new technology that was on the cutting edge, state of the art. They were more complicated than the early automobiles, than the highest-tech steam engines of the era. They had zillions of moving parts."

Pfaffenberger agrees. "If you go back to newspaper reports of the 1920s ... people were saying almost exactly the same thing that they are today."

Many said the first voting machines were a conspiracy foisted by one party on another. But the conspiracy was to try to get votes counted correctly, not altered by political bosses.

When voting machines first appeared, most elections used ballots printed up by various parties with their slates of candidates. Political operatives handed voters a ballot and a dollar or so and watched them vote to make sure they put that ballot in the box.

Then along came the so-called Australian ballot that was printed up by the government. No one could tell whom you voted for by which ballot you put in the box.

This appeared just as America was having its first love affair with technology. Marry the Australian ballot to the objectivity of a machine and you were supposed to have the tamper-proof election.

Jones has uncovered scores of patents for voting machines that were filed in that era - including one, from 1893, that was a form of the punch-card voting system that did not come into vogue until the 1970s, when computers were used to count the cards.

For some reason, the winner in the voting machine race was the lever-action machine.

The machines swept through New York state but were kept out of New York City by the Tammany Hall Democrats.

"Democrats were paranoid that Republicans were pushing these machines, that they had been secretly designed to record more Republican votes," Pfaffenberger says.

When they were finally used in the 1926 city election and Democrats did just fine, opposition ceased.

The machines then swept across the nation, at least in urban areas. Some still resisted. Chicago political bosses kept their ballot boxes until the 1960s.

The lever machines are still favored in their native state.


The problem is that the lever machines do not meet the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act ... That's because they do not leave any sort of verifiable tally of each vote; they just record the totals.

And sometimes they do not do that, such as when the counter reaches 099 and has problems turning over to 100. ...

Or when a tooth is broken off a gear, severely undercounting votes. Or when a voter thinks that he casts his vote by pushing the lever down, then pulling it back up.

Or when those who once figured out how to stuff a ballot box got around to figuring out how these machines worked.

Jones reports that Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, forced to put in machines for the 1960 election, said, "I ain't afraid of them. Give me the right election commission and I can make these voting machines sing Home, Sweet Home."

What is ironic is that the legal drawback to the lever machines, the lack of a paper trail of individual votes, is exactly what many object to about many of the new computerized systems.

Certainly, the potential for fraud is on a different scale. Machines would have to be tampered with one at a time while a single change in a computer code could alter the results in an entire state.

There are ways around this problem. Some states' computer systems produce a paper printout of the individual vote ...

Maryland's method, using the same software that keeps the vote totals to also record individual votes, is criticized by Saltman, who says each touch-screen machine should have a separate computer, independently programmed, to record individual votes.

Aviel Rubin, the Johns Hopkins computer expert who uncovered many of the problems with the computerized systems, favors an optical-scan ballot ...

Few election experts espouse what Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Montgomery Country Executive Douglas Duncan have advocated: using absentee ballots. ...

It may well be that just as people who grew up with automobiles and telephones found the lever-action machines comforting, so those growing up with home computers and BlackBerries will come to feel the same about touch-screen systems.

But some still wonder why we abandoned the lever machines in the first place other than a fervor for the latest in technology.

"They really are very, very good, actually," Pfaffenberger says of the lever machines. ...