Monday, February 28, 2011

The High Cost of High-Tech Voting

by Rebecca Wilson

This year, as in the past two years, a bill is making its way through Maryland's General Assembly that would delay the purchase of a new voting system until 2016. While the intention behind it is to save money, the legislation (SB21 and HB174) would accomplish exactly the opposite.

At a 2009 hearing on a previous version of the bill, the Maryland Association of Election Officials (MAEO) turned out in full force, protesting that they couldn't afford to pay for a new voting system while they were still paying off the purchase loan on the current one. One election official from a small county testified that his county already was paying $50,000 and they could not afford to pay any more.

"Does that include operating expenses?" asked a senator on the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee hearing the bill. The man said that he didn't know.

The senator then questioned the second election official on the panel, who admitted that he had no idea what his county was currently paying.

The third member of the panel was Armstead B. C. Jones, Sr., who had served for several years as President of the Baltimore City Board of Elections before taking his current post as Election Director there. "How about you, Mr. Jones, how much are you currently paying per year?" asked the senator.

"I don't really know," said Mr. Jones, "but it's probably a lot more than that. It could be $100,000, or for all I know it could even be a million."

With so little awareness of the costs of the current voting system, it is not surprising that these well-meaning public servants have been so easily bamboozled by those who oppose the transition to optically-scanned paper ballots. To be fair, though, the financial transactions involving Maryland's current voting system have been so convoluted that it is almost like a game of 3-Card Monte (more on that in future posts).

According to a chart handed out by the bill's House sponsor, Del. Eckardt (R, Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot, and Wicomico Counties), Baltimore City's share of the purchase cost of the voting equipment probably averaged closer to $300,000 per year at that time.

But the purchase costs are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, what has made this voting system so expensive is not just its purchase price tag — which, at $65 million, was substantial in itself — but its ongoing operating costs.

In the first three fiscal years in which the touch-screen system was fully operational statewide, the operating costs averaged $10.7 million per year — almost twice the amount of the annual payments on the purchase loan at that time. And Del. Eckardt's charts, which had the counties up in arms about the expense of a new voting system, did not take the operating costs of the existing touch-screen voting system into account.

Here's a more complete picture of Maryland's voting system costs, with the costs of buying the equipment in yellow, and the costs of operating the equipment in both shades of blue:

Maryland's Touch-Screen Voting System Costs, Fiscal Years 2003-2008

Until 2001, each Maryland county chose and paid for its own voting equipment, as is true in most American states. At that time, most counties -- 19 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions -- used paper ballots counted in the polling place by optical scanners. Prince George's, Dorchester, and Allegany Counties used lever machines, and Montgomery County used punch cards. Baltimore City had just moved to an electronic voting system different from the one Maryland now uses.

After Florida's troubled 2000 presidential election (though Maryland's went smoothly), the Special Committee on Voting Systems and Election Procedures in Maryland issued a report in February 2001 recommending that Maryland move to a uniform voting system statewide. The committee evaluated and compared the voting equipment on the market at the time. Though the report noted that Maryland's experience with optical scanners had been generally positive, it recommended Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) touch-screen voting machines which, it said, "represent the latest in sophisticated voting technology."

However, among the disadvantages it included a warning (pg 26) that proved to be prescient [emphasis added]:

As compared with the optical scan systems, a Direct Recording Electronic voting system may be more costly for local jurisdictions because of the sophisticated technology and the need for more than one unit per precinct. In order to reduce lines in the polling place, an adequate number of units must be available. Perhaps, more importantly, comprehensive and thorough testing before and after the election is critical to verifying the accuracy and security of Direct Recording Electronic voting system software....The advancement in technology represented by the Direct Recording Electronic voting systems will require additional qualified, skilled personnel to be hired or available to the State Board of Elections and Local Boards of Elections.
The sheer volume of equipment (more than 18,000 voting units statewide) and the labor-intensive testing and support from highly paid technicians are what has made the touch-screen DRE system so expensive. So when the state forced counties to switch to DREs, it softened the blow by agreeing to split the costs with the counties, including the operating costs. However, even with the state picking up half the tab, counties have seen their voting system costs skyrocket since the switch.
It's little wonder, then, that they are wary of being forced to buy yet another new system. But especially in these tight budget times, our counties can no longer afford the bloated behemoth that our touch-screen voting system has become.


  1. It seems that facts and opinions are particularly blurred here...if you have a car, and you buy another car, and the first one is not paid off, you are now paying for two matter how you cut it.
    When you buy the new car, you are still going to have service payments to make...of course, in this case, since we would be going backward in technology, we are buying a used car, which makes the payments greater.
    Technology all around us continues to amaze...why don't we just wait for the "best thing since sliced bread" to come out, and stop trying to waste taxpayer money. This debate is stale, and at this point, I would assume moot, because if you had any traction we wouldn't be having this conversation.
    Watching this from afar over the past several years has seen your organization go from trying to bash the system, to trying to bash the people that run it, to now trying to focus on the fiscal issues, because that is all that you have left.
    Congratulations on becoming a taxpayer's nightmare...those who want to promote thier own good over the common good...hey...isn't that how every Democracy in history has fallen...
    And speaking of history, this country was founded and fought on through the Revolutionary War, right? The principle behind it was "taxation without representation". Along with many other issues, this falls in this horrible afterthought of how our government is run nowadays. As people grow increasingly angry about legislators spending our taxpayer dollars needlessly, you continue to cry foul and want them to promote your cause over the common good, which amounts to spending more money, a classic case of taxation without representation. My club seems to have many more members, we are called SOCS...Save Our Common Sense.

  2. The intention behind this legislation was not to save money. It was to keep the kickbacks flowing to Linda Lamone and her cronies.

  3. The first comment on this blog was obviously written either by someone at the Maryland State Board of Elections staff or one of their lackeys at a county board. That's ok: they have a right to continue their nearly ten-year record of being wrong.

    The fact is, almost every expert who knows anything about elections and computers believes that a paperless system can never be trustworthy and therefor can never be superior to one based on voter-marked, voter-verified paper ballots. So it would be wise to get rid of Maryland's paperless system *regardless* of cost considerations. But it turns out that there would be a financial bonus to moving to a ballot-based system, in addition to the clear operational advantages of being able to audit and recount paper ballots independent of computers.

    Maryland's General Assembly understood that when both houses unanimously voted to replace the paperless machines with paper ballots marked and verified by each voter and counted by optical scanners. We should--and would--have been voting on the "op-scan" system last year, except that the Governor and key legislators were given phony "comparative cost data" which purported to show that it would be too expensive to make the change. The fact is that making the switch to a paper ballot-based system would save the taxpayers millions of dollars over the next decade.

  4. Dear Anonymous Commenters,

    Thank you for helping to initiate a discussion here. It would be easier for people to respond to you, and you might find that it would help to keep the discussion more respectful and thoughtful, to use your name, initials, or some type of identifying "handle" so that readers will be able to associate remarks with a specific commenter.

    "Anonymous 1," I especially appreciate your comments and there is much to respond to in your remarks:

    1) "those who want to promote thier own good over the common good...hey...isn't that how every Democracy in history has fallen..."

    I'm not sure I'm quite following you there. Can you cite an example of a democracy that has fallen through citizens advocating for elections that are transparent and recountable? I'm not sure I understand how that is promoting my own good over the common good. Wouldn't everyone benefit from election results that can be independently verified?

    2) "Technology all around us continues to amaze...why don't we just wait for the "best thing since sliced bread" to come out"

    Maryland was one of the first states to take the plunge into touch-screen DREs statewide. Study after study has proven this technology to be poorly designed and programmed, and real live election-day disasters have confirmed that this is not just a theoretical problem. In the 10 years that Maryland has been using DREs, several other states and counties have already junked equipment like ours when it caused serious problems that left election outcomes in doubt.

    Just because a solution is high-tech or new does not necessarily mean it's great -- in fact it's especially important to exercise caution, good judgment, and common sense when it comes to voting, which forms the bedrock on which our democracy is built. The past decade has not brought any advances in election technology that are safer, more reliable, and more economical than optically scanned paper ballots. In fact, the most promising advances have been made in the optical scanning technology itself, and the devices that help voters with disabilities mark paper ballots.

    3) Congratulations on becoming a taxpayer's nightmare...

    Deputy Elections Administrator Ross Goldstein acknowledged in a legislative hearing that MD would have spent far less by this point if we had originally chosen optical scan as our statewide voting system instead of DREs. We are now over a barrel with equipment that has reached the end of its life span but is not yet paid for and is costing us a small fortune to maintain and operate. The federal dollars that have helped alleviate the costs to counties are now all spent. I don't know about you, but to me that sounds like a "taxpayer's nightmare."

    Let's use your car analogy. Suppose you have a huge gas-guzzler that's getting old and starting to need a lot of repairs but you haven't finished paying for it yet. You need to be able count on it at times when you're going to drive it really hard because you have no back-up if it fails. The car has no resale value because it's been proven unsafe to drive. You can't really afford to keep the car on the road because of the cost of gas as well as the maintenance and repairs. Wouldn't you be better off looking for a new car that was more reliable and less expensive to buy and to drive? Even if the cost was the same while paying off the rest of your old car, you'd be investing the money in a car that would very quickly pay for itself in savings instead of continuing to throw good money after bad to keep your old car on the road.

    Again, thanks for your comments.

  5. If you want to use the car analogy - OK. But it's more like replacing a semi-truck with old brakes.

    If I buy a semi-truck when I only need a station wagon; and then 10 years down the road I still have payments to make on the semi- but it's costing me too much to keep it going - like 10X as much as the remaining payments, plus it's unreliable, and a really big gas guzzler, and it doesn't really do what I need it to do, then I'd rather put the money I'm paying for upkeep and gas into a new station wagon that is actually more suitable for my needs and is cheaper to run even though I'll have to use about one tenth of my funds to keep paying off the old semi. At least 90% of my money will be going toward a new car and toward saving money rather than watching it go down the drain.

    Higher tech is ok if it suits the purpose. Sure the touch screen systems passed the function and performance tests great, but they fail on security tests. They do not fulfill the imperative required for assuring that every vote and no extra votes are counted, and that they were counted as they were cast. They are not securable. According to voting experts, the state-of-the-art in electronic voting (and internet voting as well) is unable to fulfill that imperative at this time and it is predicted that it will not be able to do so for at least a decade. An optical scanner voting system with tractable and auditable paper ballots fulfills this need.

    The debate only smells stale because the facts have been ignored, and buried under dirt and misconceptions. In fact, most Marylanders now understand what is at stake and wonder why this hasn't happened yet and want it to happen - like NOW.

  6. Why are Howard County's costs for 2001 and 2007 so close? All other counties (excepting Caroline County) show a substantial spread for the two years. -PA

  7. Good question, PA, I have wondered that myself. I don't know what made Howard County's op-scan costs so high and I have not been able to find anyone who knows the answer to that question. At that time each county negotiated its own contract with voting system vendors, so there was probably a lot of variation in the products and services contracted as well as the prices negotiated.


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