WSU statistician: New voting machines ‘step in the right direction’

Dalton Glasscock feeds his ballot into the new counting machine at the Sedgwick County election commissioner’s office earlier this week. (March 27, 2017)
Dalton Glasscock feeds his ballot into the new counting machine at the Sedgwick County election commissioner’s office earlier this week. (March 27, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita State University statistician Beth Clarkson says Sedgwick County’s new voting machines leave less room for vote tampering than the old ones did, but still aren’t perfect.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Clarkson, who has a doctorate in statistics and works as chief statistician at WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research. “If we would audit (the machines), that would be another step in the right direction.”

On the plus side, she said, the new machines do print paper ballots with the voters’ choices printed on them. That allows voters to review their ballots and verify their selections before they feed the cards into a separate counting machine.

It also will make it possible to do a hand recount in future races if problems are suspected with the machine counts, she said.

On the downside, Clarkson said, the votes are still counted by computerized machinery, which creates the possibility of hacking or tampering with the software to change the outcome.

Clarkson is a leading skeptic of the vote counting in recent south-central Kansas elections, citing what she says have been statistical anomalies between precincts and conflicts with the results of exit polling she oversaw last year.

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said she’s confident the new system will render the correct results.

She said having voters feed their own ballots to the counting machines at the polling sites will be faster and more secure than having them put the uncounted ballots in boxes and transporting them back to the election office for counting.

Lehman also said election workers will run several checks to ensure that the number of ballots cast matches the results from the machines and the number of voters who check in at polling places.

The Kansas House has unanimously approved a bill requiring that all voting machines in the state produce a paper record of each vote cast.

House Bill 2333 would also mandate spot-check audits, comparing a random sampling of machine tallies to paper ballots after each election, before canvassers certify the results.

The first major test of Sedgwick County’s new machines is the April 11 special election for a 4th District congressman to replace Rep. Mike Pompeo, who resigned from Congress to accept the post of CIA director in the Trump Administration.

The audit bill won’t be in force for this election.

The Senate elections committee has approved HB 2333 and recommended it to the full Senate. But even if the Senate acts immediately, the audit requirements won’t take effect until next year’s elections.

Counting by hand

Clarkson said the only way to be absolutely sure of the count is to do it by hand and do it in public with observers.

While she acknowledges that kind of counting would take longer, she said it was done that way for decades before computers came on the scene and is still a common practice in European democracies.

In fact, the Netherlands announced last month that it would use hand-marked and hand-counted votes for its legislative elections, to prevent possible hacking by Russian government operatives.

Lehman said hand-counting the votes in a Sedgwick County election, “would take us a very, very, very long time.”

She said she’d need to hire about 60 temporary workers for an average general election ballot.

Also, she said hand counts need to be checked and double checked. “People make mistakes a lot more than the machines do,” she said.

As for recounts, any candidate in an election or any voter in a ballot question election has the right to demand a hand recount, although they would have to pay for it, Lehman said.

They can, however, keep the cost down by asking to recount only certain precincts instead of a whole district, she said.

Legal battles

The adoption of new voting machines renders moot Clarkson’s lengthy and unsuccessful legal battles to gain access to the paper audit trails produced by the machines Sedgwick has used until now.

Clarkson had sought access to those tapes in an effort to check the accuracy of the machines.

The audit trails were printed on rolls of paper similar to cash-register tapes and were sealed inside the voting machines. Voters could verify their selections by watching the paper tape through a small window on the machine, but the electronic tally from the machine’s touchscreen software was used for the actual election results.

The new machines function differently.

The voter still makes selections on an electronic touch screen. But instead of reporting the results directly, the machine prints out a paper ballot card with the voter’s choices.

The vote isn’t actually cast until the voter hand-carries the paper ballot and feeds it into the counting machine.

Clarkson said she won’t conduct an exit poll for the April 11 election, because with only one race on the ballot, “it’s a huge amount of work to get relatively little data.”

However, she did say she may do some post-election analysis of the results to see if the new machines generate anomalies like the ones she’s seen in past elections.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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