Election integrity advocates raise serious concerns about ExpressVote machines Johnson County commission will vote on Thursday

Jay Senter - May 16, 2018 11:01 am
The county commission is expected to vote on the expenditure of $10.5 million on new ExpressVote machines Thursday.

Can you read barcodes?

If the answer is no, that “voter verifiable paper audit trail” produced by the new machines recommended for purchase by the Johnson County Election Office might not be so verifiable after all.

Just days ahead of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioner’s expected vote tomorrow to approve Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker’s recommendation for the expenditure of $10.5 million on 2,100 new ExpressVote machines, an election integrity advocate has penned a lengthy critique of the ExpressVote system.

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In the post published on Medium Sunday, Jennifer Cohn, an attorney based in the Bay Area of California, says that the ExpressVote system doesn’t actually offer any significant improvement over the type of touchscreen technology it aims to replace.

A marketing image for the ExpressVote system showing the barcodes and plain-language summary of a voter’s choices.

Yes, voters get a chance to review a printout of their selections after they finish filling out their ballots — but that print out includes both an English summary of the votes and a series of barcodes.

“The barcode is what’s actually counted,” Cohn told the Shawnee Mission Post Tuesday. “The problem is that people can’t read and verify the accuracy of the information that’s in the barcode. And that’s the only part the scanner looks at when it’s counting votes.”

Duncan Buell, a computer scientist at the University of South Carolina, echoes those concerns.

“What the voter allegedly verifies is an English print out. What gets counted is the barcodes,” Buell said. “This is basically still ‘faith-based voting.’ You’re still voting electronically without a way to verify.”

The concern is that through human error or through hacking, ExpressVote could allow for discrepancies between what shows up in the plain-language summary of a voter’s ballot and the information encoded in the barcode.

Asked about the concerns, Johnson County Election Office Administrator Nathan Carter said the county planned to “complete extensive logic and accuracy testing on each voting machine before every election to ensure the choices made by the voter and printed on the paper ballot are tabulated correctly.”

Carter noted that the voting machines will be sealed and locked to prevent tampering, and said that neither the voting machines nor the tabulation system would be tied to an external network, the internet, or any kind of wireless technology.

Still, both Cohn and Buell say they believe hand-marked paper ballot systems offer a number of advantages over touch-screen voting systems. For one, hand-marked ballots produce a straightforward paper trail.

“I am personally in favor of [hand] marked paper, because you have something after that you can look at, you can audit,” Buell said.

Hand-marked paper ballots also allow for the expansion of capacity at voting sites much more readily than touchscreen voting machine-based systems. With touchscreen systems, a voting location can only accommodate as many voters at the same time as it has touchscreen machines — an issue that’s compounded when machines have technical problems.

“If a touchscreen machine breaks down, you see long lines forming, which means there’s a real chance that people will turn around and just not vote,” Cohn said.

With hand-marked paper ballots, sites can accommodate many more voters at the same time. And capacity is scalable with the addition of just one optical scanner, the machine that tallies up votes.

“If you have voter-marked paper and you need to add capacity at a site, you can essentially double it by going from one optical scanner to two,” Buell said. “That’s also much more cost effective than having to purchase multiple touchscreen machines.”

Carter pointed out that Johnson County has been using voting machines since 1968 after residents voted to move away from paper ballots in 1967. Touchscreen technology has been used at Johnson County polling locations for 16 years.

“We do not anticipate any delays due to using touchscreen voting machines because our county’s voters are used to voting on touchscreens,” Carter said. “The only change for voters will be reviewing their paper ballot showing their votes before inserting the paper ballot back into the machine and casting the ballot.”

He also pointed out that concerns about long lines at the polls on Election Day have been mitigated in recent years by increased advance voting turnout.

“Currently, we do not experience lines at polling locations on Election Day because of our expanded advance voting opportunities,” Carter said. “In recent elections, 60 percent of the votes cast were cast in advance. We will continue to encourage voters to take advantage of advance voting opportunities and do not anticipate the new voting equipment causing lines at the polling locations on Election Day.”

The board of county commissioners will meet at 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning at the County Administration Building, 111 S. Cherry Street, Olathe. The approval of the contract with Election Systems & Software, LLC  for the ExpressVote machines is item five on the action agenda.

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