An ES&S iVotronic electronic voting machine at Grace Methodist Church on Hogan Lane had to be taken out of service early Tuesday morning after the machine's printer, which produces the voter verifiable paper trail, malfunctioned.
Conway's Lisa Burks was had just cast her vote using the touch-screen machine, but when she reviewed the printout she saw "a short horizontal line and long vertical line."
The machine, Burks said, picked the wrong voter to mess with. As the founder and former national coordinator of the National Coalition for Verified Voting, Burks said, she lobbied against the state's adoption of electronic voting machines, and was successful in delaying their implementation for two years.
"I had hoped in two years enough people would write (Arkansas Secretary of State) Charlie Daniels to say how unreliable these electronic machines are," she said, "but the state bought them anyway."
Once the writing was on the wall for electronic voting machines in the state, Burks began lobbying for legislation that would require the printed "paper trail" seen on Arkansas voting machines except, of course, the one she was using at Grace Methodist Church. In this, she was successful.
It was extremely frustrating, Burks said, to see her vote go unverified on the scrolling ribbon of paper she had lobbied so hard for.
Election commissioner Bruce Haggard acknowledged the problem, saying that the printers are a weak point in the machines' design and that of the 21 votes cast using the machine in question before it was taken out of service, he doubts any had "paper trail" verification.
"We are having more trouble than I would like," Haggard said. "One machine literally would not come on, but we did have some backup machines so it was no problem. In most instances (of printer failure) it's just paper getting crunched in them and we can take them apart and get them running again."
A failure to create a "paper trail" does not mean a failure to register a vote, Haggard said, as a triple-redundancy electronic vote recording system has, so far, "given us no indication that we have ever lost a single vote."
"It's clear that the vote counting is much more accurate (with electronic voting machines) than any other system we've ever had," he said. "It's also clear that the machines that are working are much more efficient for voters. It's just that there's mechanical failures, and when there's a failure the voters are frustrated and, trust me, so am I.
"These machines sometimes get a bad rap for justifiable reasons. By analogy, if you go down and buy a new car you don't expect to have to check out the headlights and taillights. You just expect everything to work. When you buy new machines you expect the voter verifiable printer to work, but it doesn't always."
The county augmented its stock of 113 voting machines, each costing about $3,000 and paid for using federally allotted funds, with 25 new machines paid for by the county using state turnback funds at a cost of about $70,000. Haggard said the county must use these machines, or use paper ballots read by optical scanning machines also manufactured by ES&S.
These scanning machines, he said, have their own share of reliability problems and are often less accurate than the touch-screen machines now in use.
But the advantage of paper ballots is inherent, according to Burks.
"You've got a piece of paper with a mark on it that someone made to indicate their vote," she said. "With that, there's no question about the votes."
Haggard compared the current crop of electronic voting machines to the early days of home computers, saying that as computers have become more reliable and user-friendly over subsequent generations of the technology, so too will electronic voting machines.
"If voting machines can get to a third generation," he said, "I have no question that electronic voting machines will be far superior to anything we've seen."
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1238. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)