Machines Outsmart Humans in VT

Your Secretary of State, Jim Condos, has released the numbers from an audit of optical scanning machines in four randomly-selected Vermont towns. And the results were rather strikingly precise (with one small caveat, which I will get to later): The machines were accurate to within a couple of votes in almost every case.

Vote tabulations by machine were re-checked by hand count in Barre Town, Brandon, Essex, and Newfane, in the races for Congress and Treasurer. For instance, in Newfane, Peter Welch gained a single vote in the audit, while the other four candidates' totals were unchanged. And in the Barre Town vote for Treasurer, Beth Pearce lost two votes, Jessy Diamondstone gained one, and the totals for Wendy Wilton and Don Schramm were unchanged.

"Good news," Condos told Green Mountain Daily. "It's a good thing to do the audits; it ensures the reliability of the system."

There was one exception to the near-perfecct performance of the machines, and the primary cause was human error.

The only inaccuracies larger than a vote or two were in some tallies of write-in votes. The worst (so to speak) was in the Barre Town count for Treasurer; the machine reported three write-in votes and 102 blank ballots, while the audit detected 14 write-ins and only 85 blanks. (Other towns were much closer the mark; Brandon and Newfane had the write-in and "blank" tallies correct within a vote or two.)

The problem, says Condos, begins when a small number of voters write in a candidate's name but fail to color in the oval. The machines only read the ovals, so those ballots are counted as blank. After the machines tabulate the results (which takes only a few minutes after the polls close), poll workers are supposed to examine the ballots to check for write-ins. Judging from the (very small sample size) results of the audit, it appears that some towns do a better job of cross-checking than others. "We send instructions every year about how to read the ballots," said Condos with a hint of a sigh. "But we have a very manual election system."

It seems clear that he'd like to make the system a little bit less manual. "Last year, the House passed a bill that would mandate every town with more than 1,000 voters to use scanners," he notes. The bill died in the Senate. "The state would have paid for the machines, with federal funds through HAVA [the Help America Vote Act]."

The Legislature failed to act on a variety of reforms to election and campaign reform laws in the last session; Condos is hoping for better things next time.

And, lest we confuse Vermont's machines with, say, those Diebold thingies in Ohio, Condos reminds us that Vermont law requires a paper trail throughout the process, so everything can be checked and rechecked if need be. 

Go to VT State Page
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