In news at once frightening and reassuring, a Sequoia electronic voting machine suffered a very public failure last week during a live demo. The machine worked fine with an English-language ballot, but failed to record votes with the Spanish-language ballot. The mistake was detected because the machine produced a voter-verifiable paper print-out:
"We did it again and the same thing happened," said Darren Chesin, a consultant to the state Senate elections and reapportionment committee. "The problem was not with the paper trail. The paper trail worked flawlessly, but it caught a mistake in the programming of the touch-screen machine itself. For some reason it would not record or display the votes on the Spanish ballot for these two ballot measures. The only reason we even caught it was because we were looking at the paper trail to verify it."
Not surprisingly, Sequoia is downplaying the incident, asserting that it was a ballot design issue, not a programming issue. "It was our fault for not proofing the Spanish language ballot before demonstrating it," said spokesman Alfie Charles. He went on to say that the ballot design is normally done by election officials, not vendors, and that this kind of mistake could not happen in an election because of "all the proofing that election officials do." Yet this "proofing" failed to catch a major error in a candidate's name in a primary election in Georgia using Diebold machines -- a situation that resulted in a recount in absentee ballots. Clearly the combination of complicated technology and complicated ballots can be lethal.
It's disturbing to see companies like Sequoia downplay the likelihood of e-voting machine failures -- or, as we are increasingly seeing, blaming election officials for problems that were forseeable given the difficulty of managing complex DREs correctly. But imagine how much more disturbing it would be if the paper trail hadn't forced Sequoia to admit to a flaw in its "100 percent accurate" machines.