Early Voting in Connecticut – Part 3 – New Voting Machines

This is the third in a series on Early Voting in Connecticut. See <Part 2 – Implementing Change> See <Part 4 – Electronic Pollbooks>

In this post we will cover New Voting Machines – Why, How, and When we should implement new voting systems.

Why New Voting Machines

The simple answer is for two reasons:

First, Connecticut’s voting machines are ageing, aging both in technology and physically. For the most part they were acquired in 2007, two machines for each polling location and for central count absentee locations. A couple of years ago SOTS Denise Merrill acquired a stash of extras to have on hand to replace any that were beyond repair – they are also available for a song, used. A recent article articulates the view of many registrars, mostly through the eyes of a novice registrar. Her views contrast in several ways to ours: CT’s voting machines are ‘past their useful life’ and in need of replacing  <read>. Let us annotate some of the statements in that article.

On Election Day this year, there were reports from several towns of malfunctioning tabulators.

That has been true for every election and primary since 2007. As far as we know, there are no official or unofficial statistics for the rate of failure and the causes, except those of CTElectionAudit.org which has random sample reports going back to 2007. (I am also Executive Director of the Citizen Audit.)

Here is a brief history of AccuVoteOS scanner problems in Connecticut:

Shortly after the scanners were deployed there were extensive problems with the memory cards used on each machine to hold the program and totals for each ballot for each machine. The state wisely had ordered two machines for each polling place, along with four memory cards. Most errors were found as each machine and all four memory cards were tested before the election, others immediately on election day, quickly replaced by the backup scanner or one of the extra cards. Several years later the State purchased a compatible more modern memory card. Since that purchase there have been very very few hardware problems with memory cards – there have been problems with incorrect programming or incompatible ballot printing, once again, usually discovered in pre-election testing.

According to the CTElectionAudit reports about 4-5 years ago there were growing problems with scanners failing, mostly due to wearing out of rollers which grab and move ballots through the scanners. The root cause was poor routine maintenance by the distributor, LHS Associates. LHS Associates is contracted by the State to program the memory cards and to perform scanner maintenance. Soon the problem went away and the CTElectionAudit statistics for roller and scanner problems went back to normal.

Preliminary CTElectionAudit results from the November 2022 election show that scanner roller problems remain at the normal level, with no significant additional scanner problems reported.

In Norwalk, for example, the sole tabulator at Brookside Elementary School was broken for about a half an hour, Democratic Registrar of Voters Stuart Wells said that day.

That is interesting, experienced registrar Stuart Wells and his staff were able to fix the scanner in half an hour. That is about what it takes to fire up a backup scanner or replace a memory card with a backup. A more interesting question is why that polling location did not have a backup scanner at the ready, since the State purchased more than enough to provide two to each polling place? And the number of polling places keeps shrinking with each redistricting. (I once worked for the Dean of Connecticut Registrars, the late Judy Boudreau. She made us fire up two scanners before the polls opened, such that a failing scanner could be replaced by the ready and waiting backup. Sounds like a good plan to me if registrars are concerned – the cost is an extra ballot box to hold the waiting backup scanner.)

Cara Gately, the Republican registrar in Darien, said “every town had some impact.”

During the primary in August, a rubber roller that pulls the paper ballot into the tabulator started to melt in the summer heat, Gately said, a problem she said people have called “melting tabulators.”

Those things are rubber and so in the heat in August they started to get gummy,” she said. “The texture changed, and there was residue on the ballot, which then gums things up and then they just stopped working.”

Every town is a large exaggeration! That was August. Many towns had problems like that. Many did not. The cause was simple, heat above the stated temperature maximum for operation of the scanners. Apparently, the failing machines were well maintained in time for November. I expect they cooked many pollworkers as well. Polling places should be air-conditioned and heated, machine specifications should be followed!

In order to fix broken tabulators, parts must be cannibalized from old ones from nearby states that have already replaced theirs.

We are not sure exactly which states those are. According to the Verified Voting Verifier they are still in use in about six states including New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

This is Gately’s first year as a registrar of voters, but she was told that “the current tabulators that the state has was the year that model got decommissioned.”

Not sure what that means or who was the authority that told Gately that. The AccuVoteOS is no longer manufactured due to no demand, however, it still meets the 2002 Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines (VVSG). Those standards are still in effect for purchasing new voting machines today. However, they will be superseded by a recent major upgrade effective November 2023 to VVSG 2.0 standards. More on that later.

[SOTS Chief of Staff] Rosenberg said the process has begun to replace them, but that “it has to be done in a transparent way.”

“We’ll take requests for proposals and take a lot of public input,” he said.

We are hopeful that it will be transparent with a lot of public input!

[Gately] said she hopes that the tabulators will be replaced before the 2024 presidential election, or shortly thereafter. One year, she said, is doable, but five years “would make me nervous.

We will address timing later in this post.

Secondly, the second half of 2023 will be an ideal time to begin evaluating new scanners. That is because in 2020 the Election Assistance Commission approved VVSG 2.0 the first update to the 2002 VVSG standards which are in effect today. However, those will be effective in November 2023. That means that after that no one can purchase new jurisdiction wide machines that do not meet the new standards (Old machines may be purchased to add to existing machines in use.) So, during the second half of 2023 the three vendors will likely all be submitting machines to testing and then offering machines that meet the 2.0 standards.

We have been arguing for years that newer and better machines will become available and that Connecticut should, if possible, wait for then to purchase products that will be new rather than old out of the box. Now it is clearer when that will be possible.

How to Update Voting Machines

As we said in Part 1: In 2005 the SOTS Office initiated evaluation of voting systems for Connecticut with UConn testing, followed by public demonstrations of machines in four locations around the State, also with focus groups of registrars, those with disabilities, and technologists providing feedback on the machines. In late 2005 machines were selected. Then in November 2006 those machines were used in 25 municipalities in the even-year State election. Procedures were developed in 2006, refined in 2007 followed by registrar, pollworker, and public education, then implemented statewide in the September 2007 municipal primary. Still various problems, concerns, and complaints were found in the November 2007 elections.

That is the kind of process we favor. Note machines were evaluated starting as early as 2004, with the evaluation taking most of 2005. Then a few were used in November 2006 after some planning. Even more planning, procedure creation, training, and voter education occurred in 2007. Pretty much three full years.

There is probably less need for voter education this time as we are already use paper ballots. Perhaps a little less planning and official training, yet from the standpoint of officials the machines will be different, plans and training must cover new and changed features. On the other hand, there may be more need for thorough evaluation, testing, and research, since last time Connecticut was a little late to the game and many other states had already evaluated, purchased, and deployed systems meeting the 2002 standard. We might be one of a few acquiring them out of the gate this time.

We do have some inside information from other states regarding the current systems available from the three vendors, presumably the 2023 machines will have some of the same advantages and concerns. The machines are significantly slower, dependent on the length of ballots, ballot sides to be voted on, and on the number of bubbles on each side.  That is partially because, unlike our current scanners, they make an image of each ballot side and then interpret that image, creating a Cast Vote Record (CVR) of the votes on each ballot. Otherwise, that is a benefit facilitating certain kinds of audits and recounts, along with making Ranked Choice Voting feasible. Yet, for those benefits we will need an extra one or two scanners in many polling places. For instance, in my town, Glastonbury, we have six polling places where in a tight presidential election we can expect 3,500 to 4,000 voters. It’s doubtful one scanner can handle that. However, perhaps firing up and using two, and having a backup delivered if one of them fails would be sufficient.  Some  towns, like Greenwich have huge ballots for municipal Representative Town Meeting elections, may need more machines to handle those elections.

Beyond that some central count absentee ballot locations may benefit from high-speed scanners. They are expensive and may not be necessary if enough regular speed scanners are purchased.

Finally, we are aware of one brand where the rejection of over voted ballots may not work as our current scanners work – in a much less acceptable way. That needs to be evaluated and perhaps a fix negotiated with the vendor(s). Maybe there will be other issues uncovered. The sooner they are uncovered the better. We do not want to find them in an election after a huge long-term purchase!

Perhaps obviously, the State needs to pay for the acquisition, maintenance, procedure development, and training for the new machines as they did last time.

A couple of years ago, SOTS Denise Merrill estimated $20 Million for new machines. I estimated $12 Million. We could both be right, just estimating different things such as including long term maintenance. On the other hand, I had available information that exposed the actual selling price of the equipment available then, much lower than the list prices.

When to Implement New Machines

As we discussed in Part 2, change should be limited to one big thing at a time, if possible, done in part first, and avoiding a big change in even year elections.

Last time it took about three years from the beginning of the evaluation to the final implementation. Maybe two years or so will be enough this time. Since machines to test may not be available until mid-2023 it seems the natural time to implement new machines would be the 2025 municipal elections – starting with the September 2025 municipal primaries, giving a short time to tweak things for a full roll-out in November 2025.

Changing a machine will also likely require changes in how the machines are programmed. Right now, our Election Night Reporting System is completely separate from the voting machines. If that stays the same, then there will be less change at once!

What about 2024 or 2023?  Both are too soon for a thoughtful evaluation, procedure development, and training. In 2023 VVSG 2.0 machines may not even be available to evaluate until after the election.  Also 2024 is the worst possible time since it is a presidential election, and also likely to have the first running of in-person Early Voting.

Stay tuned, we plan at least one more post before we get to the choices for implementing in-person Early Voting.

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