Rhode Island is the last state still using the Optech III P voting machines and they don’t meet suggested federal standards.
Robert Kando on Thursday, March 7th, 2013 in testimony before the R.I. House Oversight Committee
Head of R.I. Elections Board says state is the last using “Optech III P” voting machines and they don’t meet federal standards
Robert Kando, executive director of the Rhode Island Board of Elections, appeared before the House Oversight Committee earlier this month as it continued its inquiry into what caused long lines at some polling places during the November general election.
Among suggestions Kando made to ease problems in the future was replacing the machines Rhode Island uses at its voting precincts to count ballots. The optical scanners -- known by their trade name, the Optech III P Eagle -- were purchased in 1997.
In fact, said Kando, Rhode Island is the last state still using them and they don’t meet the suggested standards set by the federal Help America Vote Act, known as HAVA.
Kando’s comments, implying that our voting machines are deficient, caught our attention.
When we contacted Kando he was adamant that Rhode Island is the last state still using the Optech III P Eagles. But he was less sure what exactly made our voting machines non-compliant with some new -- and the important word here is "voluntary" -- federal guidelines for voting machines.
"You would have to be an engineer to figure that out," he replied. Kando said he would contact the company that maintained Rhode Island’s machines -- Election Systems and Software (ES&S), based in Nebraska -- and get back to us with the reasons.
In the meantime, we did some research.
Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 in response to the "hanging chad" debacle of the 2000 presidential election. In that contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, confusion with reading paper ballots in Florida and deciphering voters’ intent eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court intervening and stopping the recount, putting Bush in the White House.
HAVA provided money to states to upgrade their voting systems to assure a higher level of accuracy, a better recount system and improved access for voters with disabilities.
The act also created a new federal agency called the Elections Assistance Commission to advise states on how to comply with HAVA. The commission wrote up some technical guidelines for voting machines -- dealing with among other things software and electrical capabilities -- but made these guidelines voluntary.
States could use the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines if they wanted to have the EAC certify that their voting machines met HAVA requirements. But states such as Rhode Island, which used machines purchased before the 2002 HAVA requirements, weren’t required to do so.
We found through various sources, including verifiedvoting.org, that more than 200 counties and communities in at least at least seven other states -- Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Wisconsin and Virginia -- were still using Optech III P Eagle voting machines. (Unlike Rhode Island, most states don’t use the same machine statewide.)
We also checked in with Rhode Island’s Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis on whether our voting machines meet the voluntary standards.
Spokesman Chris Barnett wouldn’t answer that question directly, but issued a general statement: "We agree that Rhode Island’s voting machines are beyond their useful life," and he said his office hoped the machines would be replaced before the next election in 2014.
Finally Kando forwarded to us an e-mail he had received from ES&S which cited three specific areas in which Rhode Island’s voting machines were "non-compliant" with the voluntary standards. And we quote:
"No operating system -- all OS type functions included in the assembler firmware"
"No life cycle counter"
"No poll open process - power on allows ballots to be read."
When we asked Kando to explain, noting that legislators would likely need something in English if they were to approve spending $5 million to replace the machines, Kando replied:
"While I have my own understanding of the three deficiencies . . . I am fearful that any answer that I provide will be dissected to uncover any flaw and that the best source of information is the vendor."
In a phone interview, Kathy A. Rogers, vice president of government affairs with ES&S, explained the three deficiencies.
"No operating system . . . " pertains to the machine’s aging hardware and software no longer being capable of tabulating votes at the speed and efficiency the suggested standards recommend.
"No life cycle counter" means that Rhode Island’s machines, unlike newer models, can’t keep a running count of how many votes were counted through them in their lifetimes.
And finally "no poll open process" concerns turning the machines on. For security reasons, the standards require that voting machines have a password or a lock system in order to turn them on. The Optech Eagles, however, "were designed to begin counting ballots as soon as you plugged it in," said Rogers
In a follow up interview, Kando said the point he was trying to make with his statement is that Rhode Island’s voting machines are substandard, not obsolete. They still assure "an accurate and fair" tabulation of votes, he said.
And ES&S did say in an e-mail to Kando that while the machines don’t comply with some new standards, they are "performing accurately, reliably and securely if used and maintained according to recommendations."
Robert Kando said that Rhode Island is the only state still using the Optech III P Eagle voting machine, and that the machines do not meet suggested federal standards.
He’s wrong on the first count: a quick search found at least seven other states still using the old machines.
He’s right on the second: the vendor confirmed to us that the machines aren’t compliant with some voluntary federal standards.
We rule his statement Half True.
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Editor’s note: This item was revised on March 25, 2013, to include a list of states where Optech III P Eagle voting machines were in use.