Sunday, November 12, 2006

Four Strikes and You Should be Out - corrected

In my earlier post on this topic, I said Judge Brown's intention were undecided, but, I have been told that some of my phrasing was taken as an implication that Brown was equally culpable for the election night fubar. That was not my intention, and I apologize if I left that impression. To the best of my knowledge, Judge Brown is asking for details of the election and has not yet taken a position.

I have talked to a lot more people and have more first hand information than I did Wednesday. I am sorry to say, nothing I have learned makes Mike Benton look any better.

The paper ballots were not counted by hand as I satirically suggested in an earlier post. The one scanner we had was smaller and slower than had been used in past elections. Workers were feeding stacks of 30 to 40 ballots at a time, waiting for it to digest them, and repeating the process. About 10:00 PM, someone, by one report Vonna McKerly, suggested bringing up some of the Hart E-Scan machines and putting them to work. As they had not been prepped, each had to be programmed before being put to work, but eventually 8 of them were added to the assembly line.

The E-Scan machine was designed as a precinct counting machine, as it was used in March. The study I mentioned in my Standard-Time guest column, in a review of Florida jurisdictions with various voting systems, the paper ballot with precinct scanners to tabulate the vote had the lowest error rate of any looked at. This study was also sent directly to Mr. Benton. I do not know whether he read it, but it was provided to him. Used as a precinct counter the E-Scan has the additional advantage of being its own paper trail, as the physical ballots are preserved in the event of a recount.

This brings up the critical question of why the E-Scan machines were not used as designed, as precinct level tabulators. In the March primary, some E-Scan machines, the one in my precinct being one, failed to close down at end of day, they did not recognize the password provided. We were eventually told to unplug them and bring them in. On election night, my party Chair, Russ Duerstine, queried Mr. Benton on just this point. Nearly everyone with real knowledge of the systems I have told about this problem had the opinion the problem in March was bound to be improper programming of the E-Scans that did not respond. Mr. Benton told Russ those machines had malfunctioned and that was why they were not used at precinct level this time, they were unreliable.

Had those E-Scan boxes been used at precinct level, instead of feeding over 10,000 paper ballots through slow scanners, elections office would have pulled the cards from 50-some scanners and read them. If those scanners were so unreliable we could not use them in the way Hart Intercivic designed them, how could Mr. Benton turn around and decide they were adequate to do a central counting station function for which they were never designed?

How Mr. Benton arrived at his 25% paper ballot figure is another mystery. In the early voting, where there were plenty of both paper booths and machines available, the voters, under no pressure of limited availability chose paper right at 50% of the time. The initial count showing Kay Longest ahead at 64% came from the 3,100 early votes cast on the E-Slates. Total early vote was about 6,800, 3,100 of which were cast on paper, on site, the balance being mail-in absentee. In that ballots are now printed in house, there is no excuse for not erring on the side of caution and having plenty of ballots. They are not expensive. In my years as an election judge, most of which was solely paper, we normally turned in more unvoted ballots than used. Why this sudden frugality on paper?

Compounding the crush of election day ballots, the early voting paper was not counted until election night. 68.034 of election code demands that the county clerk transmit the early voting results to the Secretary of State at 7:00 PM of election day, consistent with 68.033 which says the early voting ballot board shall count the ballots “periodically throughout the day.”

I have talked to a number of precinct judges, over twenty to date, who did work this election. When directly questioned on these two points not a one of them claimed to have faith in the current voting system, and not one had faith in the competency of the current elections administrator. Aside from the election night debacle other complaints surfaced.

Inadequate training was high on the list. I did work the March primary, and Hart provided four hours of training, with another hour by the elections office itself. This time we watched an hour long movie provided by the Secretary of State, which was not even specific to the Hart system we are using. If Mr. Benton presumed everyone had done the training in March, he was wrong. He had no basis for such an assumption, he of all people should have known who had volunteered.

Poor communication was another. In previous elections I had been provided with as many as four phone numbers, three being numbers not in the phone book. Some judges still had those numbers from previous elections and had no problem getting through, those lines are still active. Why weren't all election workers given these numbers?

One judge told me she was not given the notice giving the Secretary of State's toll free complaint line to voters, and was taken to task over that by an observer from that office. Posting that sign in the polling place is required by statute. I started asking that, and no judge I spoke to was given one.

Poll workers complained of being assigned to precincts other than that for which they had volunteered. That is something I had never heard of before, and I have done this for many years.

I will add one of my reasons for resigning, though it goes back to the March primary. In earlier elections, on paper, we picked up our supplies the day before election and did the physical set-up the afternoon or evening before. I would have everything set to go when I walked in the polling place in the morning. The only thing that did not stay in the polling place was the bundle of ballots. They went home with me and I literally slept with them, only unwrapping and signing them on election morning with other poll workers present. In March, elections office came to each place and put in the E-Slates, the JBC controller, and the E-Scan for paper ballots. Those machines then sat there overnight. In the fifty some polling places I don't guess much more than a thousand or so people between deacons, janitors, teachers, etc. had keys to one or another of them. That was totally unacceptable ballot security to me. The E-Slate machine heads were the ballots.

Several judges I spoke to expressed their belief that Mr. Benton had set out with the intention of making paper ballots look bad, and it is true he has more than once publicly expressed his personal preference for an all electronic voting system, most recently on KSAN news last Wednesday. On election night, Russ Duerstine overheard Benton to say, “We are just going to have to force the voters to use the electronic option.” Fortunately, that is not his decision to make. The County Commissioners, or in Party Primaries, the respective Party executive committees, selects the system to be used. I have no personal knowledge of evidence that would prove Benton deliberately sabotaged this election, but that leaves one with the alternative that he was staggeringly incompetent.

I originally supported Mr. Benton's selection enthusiastically. I spoke to my party chair, Dennis McKerly at least twice urging his appointment. I am now forced to the conclusion it is time for a change in that office. Aside from the sheer ineptitude, by continuing to advise adoption of a system the voters have so clearly expressed distrust in, Benton shows no faith in the judgment of the voters he works for. Unless the many, many people I have talked to are by some fluke a totally unrepresentative sample, the voters have no faith in him.


  1. You can find more information at Hart
    Intercivic voting systems
    . Don't forget to check our own Voting

  2. I had run longer than usual, but tried to cover the important points. The Hart system we use has in internal audit capability built into it. Voting totals are stored in three different locations, and this allows an administrator to select precincts at random and run a fairly quick check to see if the totals are indeed the same on the JBC as on the individual E-Slates. Not quite the full paper trail I would prefer, but better than nothing. Are we doing these audits and if not why yhe hell not.

  3. Jim,
    You know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I oppose electronic voting. But, in this article "Four Strikes and You Should be Out" I fear that you are misrepresenting and/or do not have all of your facts straight.
    I am not here to defend Mike Benton totally but to say that he is not alone in the blame for the events in any of the past elections and/or recounts. As past Republican County Chairman I can tell you that both Mikes and I had considerable disagreements about paper ballots and electronic voting.
    In the primaries we had scanners for each precinct that were shared by both parties with very few problems excluding closing codes and delivery of equipment. The complaints from Brown and Benton at that time was the cost of renting trucks, paying employees, and other expenses involved with delivering the equipment to the polling places and getting it “set up”. Rented trucks were damaged and equipment was mishandled because of the lack of training. This was an added pressure to Mike Benton that he did not appreciate and an expense that Mike Brown did not anticipate. Their argument was that Abilene did not do it that way. We are not Abilene. I can provide you responses from county chairs throughout the state that contradict the opinion that we were the only ones that rented trucks or had expenses to deliver equipment. There are reports of counties that had lawsuits filed against them because paper ballots were not furnished to the voters.
    If the scanner that was being used was smaller and slower than the ones used before I have to question who approved the purchase of this new scanner - as far as I know the scanner was not new. Why was this scanner different and new?
    I will disagree totally with Mr. Benton about the machines malfunctioning. During the primary, after the Hart associates did arrive and analyze the problems we were having, it was a consensus of the people involved, both parties and election workers, that a lack of proper training, lack of response from Hart and several other factors were involved. The blame could not be placed on any one position or person. The Hart associates were able to prove their equipment.
    If you can find access to the minutes of the Commissioners Court I think you will find that the Democrat chairman at that time, and I, asked for scanners for both parties for the primaries. We were denied. Had the commissioners approved our request there would have been no shortage of scanners. But remember they would have to pay the transport fees for the equipment to the polling places and not have the extra monies that they enjoyed supposedly for training.
    In reference to the amount of paper ballots that were printed, I too am at a loss at why the amount was so low. But again, your facts are wrong. We did have to print and deliver more ballots to many of the precincts in the primary. This again supports…. “Why %25?”. But where were the county chairmen that should have been insuring that there were enough ballots available in the general election? Who made the decision for that amount? Was it the administrator? Was it the county Judge?
    I will take the blame for the lack of ballots ordered in the primary.
    In reference to the early voting ballots being counted before 7:00 p.m. you must remember that the equipment used to manufacture the ballots is the same equipment used to count the ballots. Again this goes back to management and who is responsible. In the primary, it was human error (lack of training, lack of response to training, etc), and some equipment error. We did find in the primary that judges not following procedures and equipment programming were about 50/50. I take exception to the training that was offered to the Republican judges and clerks. They were offered more than one chance to train and many did not respond. If a judge is not comfortable with the training that they have received, I consider it their fault for the ignorance if they do not ask for more help. It is the responsibility of the party to train their judges to be the best that they can be for their party.
    Your reference to phone numbers being available is one that I feel is arguable. The forms for elections that are to be posted are standard and usually provide the state contact number for complaints to the state. I will choose to make no comment on why you were not provided with other phone numbers as in the past.
    I must apologize for my laughter at workers being assigned to other precincts. You have no idea what it is like to even get people to work in the elections much less in their own precinct. Be thankful that there were workers in the polling places.
    Now for my main questions. Where and how did Mike Benton gain so much power that he can force this county to go electronic? When did he become so influential that he can tell the commissioners how to spend the taxpayer money? When did the commissioner’s court give him, or Molly Taylor, the money to operate the elections office efficiently? Why is it all Mike Benton’s fault?
    I will say again that I am not in total defense of Mike Benton, but any skeptics might want to take a serious look at other factors. I placed many complaints with the court that were ignored and I am sure Mike did the same.
    (copied from bad-bad voter to here for continuity. JWT Blogger in chief)
    10:15 PM, November 13, 2006

  4. This is Jim Turner, the webmaster and not the writer of the start of this thread. I would like to ad some of my thoughts and answer some of Dennis's points.

    First, all of the voting equipment used in this election was purchased new from Hart Intercivic before the primary. The older central scanners were not compatible with the new ballot format. Remember you used to have to use pencil on thicker paper instead of pen on standard thickness paper.

    Second, there is no legal or logistical reason for the early paper ballots not to be scanned as they came in, or at least at the end of the day. The scanners aren't normally tied to the computer during scanning, so scanning should not interfere with ballot printing. They had 3 days between the close of early voting and election day to discover the trend in paper ballots and count any uncounted paper ballots. A simple look at the count would have shown they needed to print more paper ballots. That count would, along with a review of the scanners specs, would have shown that more than one scanner would be required.

    Personally, I agree there is enough blame to go around. The decision to not send the E-scans (which were bought for polling place use) to the polling places instead of finding a better way to get them there makes me wonder. The E-scans are about the size of a kitchen trash can and don't require a truck to move. The transportation required, when you consider the voting stations, e-slates, jbc, ballots, voter lists, ballot boxes, cables, etc. should have enough room for an e-scan per polling place. The "added" expense of putting an e-scan in each polling place should be relatively small. If we aren't going to use them as designed, then why have them at all?

    I think this is a false economy. Doing an election right does cost money, but what does it cost when we do it wrong?

    I will leave it to Jim Ryan to further clarify, but on the phone numbers we are actually talking two different sets. There is the sign that is required to be posted in each polling place by statute. This sign has the toll free number for reporting voting problems to state election officials. These signs didn't make it to the polling places with the other materials, and so had to be posted later. This is the problem caught by an election observer.

    There is another set of phone numbers that are used by poll workers to contact local election officials. According to Mr Ryan and others poll workers I have talked to in the earlier elections the poll workers were given additional numbers besides the single number listed in the phone book. That didn't happen this time. This caused delays.

    In conclusion, not all the blame does belong on Mike Benton. Still, he hasn't done that good in planning or implementation and some of the comments he has been heard to make do raise disturbing questions. We can't keep doing what we are doing now.

  5. In resonse to Dennis M. I seem to have been unclear on a few points. Reading some of JWT's comment, it seems possible Dennis had not seen the "Four Strikes" Blog.

    In speaking of the shortage of paper ballots this time, I made no reference to the Primary. Actually, compared to the other foulups, paper ballots running short was below my radar screen. The 25% estimate I complained about on this election was reported in the Standard-Times, and unless that Q&A was misrepresented Benton took credit for the estimate based on some unspecified formula. Again, the formula seems not to have included a 50% paper ballot choice in early voting. At the rate the one scanner set up initially on election night was processing votes, it would have been inadequate had the paper been under the 25%.

    As JWT points up, the Sec State number to be posted is a matter of statute, and was not provided to any worker I spoke to. It is a separate matter entirely from poll workers having multiple contact numbers for local elections office.

    As to training, I really seem to have been misunderstood there. I was not beefing about the training we got in March. The four hour session was hands on, and ended with a "start-up to close down" drill, including several types of voter problems. It was, at least for the workers in our polling place, adequate. We had no problems until close, when the E-Scan refused to recognise passwords provided. The only problem I had with Primary training was at the end, when the Hart rep totally ducked my question on "What do we recount if there is a recount?" I was told that was most unlikely, and would be up to the Sec of State.

    I made clear at the end of "Four Strikes" that Benton does not have authority to force a system on Commissioners or voters. One has to believe he has a touch more input than the average individual. I would feel more comfortable if I had any reason to believe Benton were dedicated to providing a reliable system which still allowed the voters the choice they so clearly expressed a preference for.

    Transport in March was a huge fubar. This election, the E-Slates w/collapsible stands, and JBCs were transported by the polling place people along with the usual supplies. Why the E-Scan machines were deemed an intolerable burden is not clear. An E-Scan with head is about twice the size of the standard metal box voters dropped paper ballots into this election. Why in March we were unable to find drivers for rental trucks the average weekend household usually manages to move things in without peeling off the top is not real clear.

    Benton does not get all the blame, but some things have to fall in his lap. The March primary, with runoff and with recount should have been a good shakedown cruise. No fair person could expect perfection first time out with a whole new system. My complaints here do not extend to that election, it was cited here and there for comparative purposes.

    New workers did not get the training offered then. Rather than find a better way to get the entire Hart system to the precincts as designed, the paper ballot side of that system was withheld from designed use, then pressed into service outside design parameters, and that too late to prevent a very late report of results.