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Staff file photo by Bob Hammerstrom

Merrimack resident Donny Mack slips a ballot into an AccuVote during town elections in April 2010. Recent recounts of 22 races from the Nov. 2 election found that such machines miscounted fewer than 1 percent of ballots, a smaller percentage than most places which count ballots by hand.
Monday, November 22, 2010

Ballot machines good example of appropriate technology

David Brooks

If you’re reading this column, chances are you like technology – but what you really should like is appropriate technology, an example of which we will now celebrate.

This example was on display throughout New Hampshire earlier this month, when ballots were tallied in hundreds of town halls and school cafeterias by sort-of-electronic-and-sort-of-manual machines, which exist in the appropriate place between cool but complex (and suspect) electronic ballot counters, and comfortingly traditional but slow (and suspect) hand counting.

My faith in this technology, the Accuvote optical reader, was reinforced last week when hand recounts were held for 22 close races from Nashua through the upper Connecticut River Valley.

By my calculations, the error rate – the percentage of total ballots cast in each polling place that were changed by the recount – never topped 0.8 percent for any of the machine-counted polling places, and usually was below one half of one percent. That’s not perfect, but it’s well within the 1 percent difference that virtually guarantees a recount.

By the way, special kudos go to Nashua Ward 4 polling folks, who worked at the Ledge Street Elementary School gym. Discounting the tiny town of Sharon, which casts so few votes that miscounting them would be almost impossible, the recounts left tallies unchanged for only six of more than 100 candidates throughout New Hampshire – and two of those six were in Ward 4 (which, like all of Nashua and most of the region, uses optical scanners).

The Accuvote reader is a roughly $7,000 scanning device that bounces light off paper ballots to determine whether ovals next to candidate names have been filled in by a dark pencil.

The reason it’s so great is it requires us voters to fill in a paper ballot, which provides a hard-copy backup in case the electronics go blooey.

That ballot makes the voting process slower and more labor intensive than voting with all-electronic devices, but it is also what makes the technology appropriate.

The lack of hard-copy backup is the fatal flaw in touch-screen ballot machines, and is one of the reasons that Secretary of State Bill Gardner decided years ago not to allow them to be used in New Hampshire.

In New Hampshire, 112 communities, including all the biggest cities and towns, use Accuvote; that’s about half of all communities. Another optical ballot system called OpTech , in which you had to fill in an arrow next to your candidate’s name using a special pencil, has been phased out.

Gardner is the man most responsible for convincing the state to mandate optical readers to replace hand-counting and the old mechanical lever machines once used in Nashua.

“The machines came into this state because of problems with hand counting,” said Gardner in a phone interview last week.

The recent recounts demonstrate this, because error rates in places where ballots had been counted by hand on election night were as high as 1.6 percent and were almost always higher than in nearby ballot-counted wards or towns.

I am not surprised. It is much more difficult than you would think for several tables full of volunteers to keep track of results for a dozen or more races on hundreds of ballots, especially when there are multiple winners, as is the case in most of our state representative races.

Among other things, overtallies (such as voting for five people in a four-person race) and undertallies complicate life enormously, while fatigue can be a big problem.

Then there are those idiots who insist on writing in “Mickey Mouse” and other not-so-funny fake names. If town clerks had their way, that would be a federal offense punishable by the bastinado.

New Hampshire’s decision to go with optical readers allowed us to snicker at Florida during the “hanging chad” debacle of 2000 – New Hampshire banned punch-card ballot readers in the mid-1980s – and to shrug off concerns about electronic voting machines changing tallies.

It also put us in good stead after the 2008 presidential primary, when questions were raised about the results of Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton. As you may recall, Clinton did better in districts with optical readers than hand counts, which puzzled folks who didn’t realize that this reflected an urban vs. suburban/rural division.

Combined with descriptions of optical readers as “electronic” and the fact that they are made by Diebold, which made the problem-filled touch-screen machines (Diebold has since changed its name), this bounced around the Internet and led to a frenzy of conspiracy theories. The Telegraph and all other media outlets were besieged with e-mails from out-of-state demanding that we IMMEDIATELY EXPOSE THIS FRAUD!!!

Over the next 5½ weeks the state recounted all GOP and 40 percent of Democratic ballots and the number of changes was so tiny that it was halted there.

This didn’t silence the worriers, who noted that it’s possible people had broken into the boxes of ballots taken out of machines after the election and swapped out thousands of them in the exact proportions necessary to match the electronic tally. (Even now, the wikipedia article “New Hampshire primary 2008” has paragraphs of suspicion and no details about the recount.)

And there are still folks who think that all elections should be hand-counted, if for no other reason than because having a machine tally results violates the state constitutional requirement that votes be counted in open meeting. Some people in the Peterborough area have protested the use of the machines for this reason.

The concern did lead the Legislature to decide last year – and quite rightly – that all recounts must be done by hand. They recognized that you can’t double-check a machine by just making the machine do the same thing again.

The result is that, for most of us, no matter how broken the political and governance side of New Hampshire democracy seems to be, the technological is working pretty well.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or