Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Post's Report on Hart's eSlate

Voters in Alexandria, Charlottesville, and Falls Church woke up this morning to a report in the Washington Post that suggested there may be a problem with the voting machines used in those jurisdictions, the Hart Intercivic eSlate system.

The headline, which is the only part of the article most readers will see, no doubt caused a few heart palpitations:

Some Voting Machines Chop Off Candidates' Names
Computer Glitch Affects Voters in 3 Jurisdictions; Error Cannot Be Fixed by Nov. 7

The article, by Leef Smith, explains:

U.S. Senate candidate James Webb's last name has been cut off on part of the electronic ballot used by voters in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville because of a computer glitch that also affects other candidates with long names, city officials said yesterday.

Although the problem creates some voter confusion, it will not cause votes to be cast incorrectly, election officials emphasized. The error shows up only on the summary page, where voters are asked to review their selections before hitting the button to cast their votes. Webb's full name appears on the page where voters choose for whom to vote.

Election officials attribute the mistake to an increase in the type size on the ballot. Although the larger type is easier to read, it also unintentionally shortens the longer names on the summary page of the ballot.
As one might expect, I have been fielding questions about this issue today.

One point to make at the outset: It is the candidate, not the State Board of Elections or the local Electoral Board, who chooses how his name appears on the ballot. If Jim Webb had chosen to have his name appear on the ballot as "James Webb" or "Jim Webb," this would not be an issue.

Reading the Washington Post story carefully will reveal that Hart Intercivic has already addressed this software "glitch" (which they have been aware of for quite some time). The software upgrade for version 6.0 of the Hart eSlate has been submitted to the Commonwealth of Virginia for certification. (Every time the software, hardware, or firmware for voting machines is changed, regardless of the reason, it must go through a rigorous certification process by the state.) Certification has been delayed but will be in place in time for elections in 2007.

In the meantime, following Charlottesville's example, Alexandria and Falls Church election officials will be posting signs in each voting booth that explains precisely to voters what to expect when the summary screen appears. The same sign will also be displayed at the entrance to each precinct, where the demonstrator machines are located, and election officials are instructed to explain the summary screen to voters who ask about it.

This only became an issue after voters requested that the font size on the Hart eSlate should be increased, so that names and other information would be more readable. When the new problem arose, Hart Intercivic immediately began to address it -- although, as noted above, the certification process has slowed implementation of the solution.

Some bloggers have referred to this minor problem as an "e-voting failure." This is hardly the case. In fact, it demonstrates quite clearly how the process works to meet the needs and desires of voters.

Other bloggers have suggested that this situation is the result of a pro-Allen or crypto-Republican conspiracy to hobble Jim Webb's chances in this election. As an election official, I take personal offense at this insinuation. Across the state, Electoral Board members and general registrars maintain high standards of integrity and neutrality. Although Electoral Board members are partisan political appointees, when it comes to running elections, we leave our party hats at home.

Some background information may be in order:

All Electoral Boards in Virginia have three members: two from the incumbent governor's party and one from the party that placed second in the previous gubernatorial election. Currently, that means that every Electoral Board has one Republican and two Democratic members. The chairman and the secretary must be from different parties. (I am currently Secretary of the Electoral Board in Charlottesville.)

Ballots are designed by each local elections office in conjunction with the vendors that provide the various voting machines. But ballot design must be approved by the State Board of Elections. Approval of ballot design is usually done in August, as absentee voting begins in September. The State Board can be rather meticulous -- our initial design was rejected because of the indentation of the paragraphs on the first page of the on-screen ballot. We fixed that and it was approved.

The three jurisdictions in Virginia that use the Hart eSlate system -- Charlottesville (which has been using the machines since 2002), Alexandria (since 2003), and Falls Church (since 2004) -- often consult with each other on technology issues. We all also attend the annual Hart Users Group meeting. (Last year it was in Orange County, California, which has more voters -- and therefore more machines -- than any single voting jurisdiction in Virginia. The year previous, the Hart Users Group met in Charlottesville. This year's meeting has been delayed until March 2007, when it will be held in Austin, Texas, where Hart has its corporate headquarters.) The users group meetings allow election officials and voting equipment technicians from different voting jurisdictions around the country to talk about problems they encounter and how they solve them, and they are excellent forums for discussing with Hart Intercivic engineers ways in which the system can be improved.

The reason I mention this is to emphasize that our elections offices are not passively using this equipment: We participate in a continual process to improve and upgrade the software, hardware, and firmware. We have been active participants, for instance, as Hart has worked towards designing a "paper trail" add-on, which is likely to become mandatory in a few years.

This particular problem of truncated names has been known to us for several years. The first time we became acutely aware of it was during a City Council election in 2004, and we immediately reacted by deploying posters in every voting booth in the city explaining that "if you vote for XXXX, the name will appear on the summary screen as XX; this does not affect your vote." Voters (in Charlottesville, at least) have learned to expect the posters and we have had few complaints since 2004, because we are now prepared before each election for summary screen discrepancies.

In the meantime, I recommend that people considering a run for public office should think about changing their names to, say, "Emmanuel Ax" or "Cher."

I would write more, but I have to head downtown for the pre-election training session with the Chief Election Officers, Assistant Chiefs, and Closing Specialists from each of Charlottesville's nine polling places. I am sure the Washington Post article will be a topic of discussion there.

* * *

Updates: Law professor Rick Hasen has this to say on his popular Election Law Blog:
Assuming this problem cannot be remedied, I wonder if Democrats would like signs to be put up at polling places explaining that a vote for "James H. 'Jim'" counts as a vote for James Webb. Seems like only the fair thing to do.
We're way ahead of you, professor. Here are some pictures of the notice that will appear in each voting booth in Charlottesville. As noted above, there will also be much larger notices posted at the demonstration table.

Channel 29's David Douglas has a report on the issue, which he delivers in his inimitable style: "What if you took my last name away and it just said 'David'? Would you still know who I was?" You can see the video at NBC29.com.

WCAV-TV also has a report, narrated by Philip Stewart.

Bob Gibson will have an article on the truncated names in tomorrow's Daily Progress; I'll link to it when it's available. (Here it is.)

Another Update: There's a vigorous discussion of this topic going on over at CvilleNews.com.


Kenton said...

I surmise that voters in Alexandria and Falls Church will probably be befuddled more than Charlottesville, since they have to contend with the Jims Webb, Moran, and Hurysz.

Anonymous said...

You say that this problem of truncated names has been known to voting officials for several years? Did voting officials tell candidates exactly how many spaces they would have available for their name at the time the candidates decided exactly how they wanted their name to appear on the ballot?

If you told them, I'd say the problem with Mr. Webb's shortened name is his own fault. If you didn't tell them, then this mess is the fault of election officials. Which is it?

Rick Sincere said...

Certainly the political parties active in Alexandria, Charlottesville, and Falls Church have known about this issue for several election cycles, since the truncation of names on the summary page (and only on the summary page, nowhere else on the ballot itself) has affected other candidates, both Democrats and Republicans.

Mr. Webb's name appeared on the June primary ballot in exactly the same configuration, and either nobody noticed or nobody cared. So he certainly would have -- or should have -- known by August, when the State Board of Elections began approving ballot styles that were being submitted by local election officials.

There is probably a procedure whereby a candidate can change the way his name appears on the general election ballot after it has already appeared on a primary ballot. But keep in mind that he must use the same form of his name on every ballot in the state; it must be uniform. (The summary page is not the "ballot"; it is just a courtesy to voters to let them recheck their choices before pushing the "cast vote" button. The machines we used before electronic voting -- levers and punch-cards -- did not include this courtesy feature.)