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Posted on Wed, Aug 4, 2010 : 10:31 a.m.

Voting machine links: The quirks of using AutoMARK

By Edward Vielmetti

Voters in yesterday's primary election had the opportunity to use the AutoMARK machine, which marks a ballot for you using a touch screen. It's designed to be of use for voters in need of assistive technology, but poor industrial design combined with infrequent use and poor operating instructions means that very few voters and poll workers know how to make the machine work right.

Here's a roundup of AutoMARK links from reports from past elections, plus my own experience this time. I didn't have any problems this year, but in previous elections I did, and it's good to write this stuff down because you need to remember it only a few times a year.

How did it go this time?

The AutoMARK machine is straightforward to use, if you know how to use it. Contrary to instructions printed on the ballot and on the machine itself, you carefully detach and keep the stub at the top of the ballot before putting it into the machine. If you don't detach the stub, the machine will spit out the ballot as unrecognized.

It's not an electronic voting machine, not in the sense that you push buttons and the vote gets directly registered. Rather, the machine takes your vote selections from the touch screen, and when all of your choices are made for both sides of the ballot, it inks in the ballot for you. You examine the ballot, check it for accuracy, and then insert it into the normal ballot reading machine. The machine votes both sides of the ballot, automatically scanning both sides in; it also checks to be sure that you did not overvote (put in too many marks) or undervote (not vote for anyone) in elections.

AutoMARK also has an interface that can be controlled without needing to see the screen (using audio prompts) and one that can be controlled with a "sip and puff" interface for someone who can toggle a single switch.

Some links give you a preview. The ES&S AutoMARK page from the manufacturer is aimed at professionals considering the device to meet federal voting requirements. The Michigan Secretary of State voting machine information page has a summary of information, and a longer AutoMARK training video has additional information. There are nearly identical instructions in other states like Montana which have the same equipment.

What goes wrong

Once the machine recognizes the ballot, I have not had problems. The problems generally arise before the ballot is marked, where the AutoMARK system spits out the ballot as unrecognized. Most of the problems arise when the ballot stub is not detached.

Ada County, Idaho: "About 90% of the precincts encountered problems testing the machines because the stub was still attached. This is clearly our fault. The ballots we trained with did not have stubs on them. We never thought about the significance of that and obviously the manufacturer did not consider that either."

Contra Costa County, Calif., 2005: "During the March Election, the Grand Jury observed the following: a. The perforation on the ballot stub, which the voter received, did not always tear cleanly, complicating insertion of the ballot into the scanner."

Experiences in Ann Arbor

In January 2008, I tried and failed to use the AutoMARK machine in the presidential primary. I got there late, too late to have an expert come by to help me figure out the machine:

"The technological snafu was voting as though I was a vision-impaired voter and trying to use the AutoMARK machines provided for that purpose. The machine marks ballots with audio prompting; it has awful industrial design, a very clumsy ballot shield, the poll workers had not run a real ballot through it all day (just a sample ballot), and when it spat back my ballot a half dozen times they directed me to the hand marked ballot booth rather than spoiling the ballot and starting with a new piece of paper."

In May 2008, I tried again to use the AutoMARK machine, and finally figured it out with the help of a poll worker who drove to the location to figure out what was wrong.

"I got to the polling place a little bit earlier this time and tried it again. It misbehaved the same way, but this time there was time to figure it out, so the poll workers called in their expert who drove over to help figure it out. The solution ended up to be very simple: the detachable stub on the ballot must be detached before putting the ballot into the machine, despite the very clear instructions on that stub not to detach it, and with no visible instructions to detach it anywhere on the AutoMARK machine."

In November 2008, I had no problem using the AutoMARK.

"It was mostly painless, helped in large part by having done it enough times that I knew what was likely to fail. The poll worker there knew that I needed to tear off the strip on top of the ballot before feeding it into the marking machine - the simple solution to most of the reported problems with the device - in part because this was my third time through this same precinct with the same voting machine and we figured it out before."

Vote early, vote often

The earlier you go to a polling place, the more likely it is that you will be able to figure out what kind of novel voting technology there is to use there, and the more time that you will have to allow election officials to come to your assistance if something goes wrong.

The more often you vote, and the more often you use the same equipment to vote, the more likely it is that you will be able to make it all the way through the process without it being a big deal. (Only vote once per election, of course.)

Not very many people use the AutoMARK machines. That's too bad, actually; when they work, they are fast, convenient, accurate, and careful in how they put ink into circles. The more people use assistive technology, the easier it is for people who need them to work to make sure that it works when they need them.

Edward Vielmetti is the lead blogger for Reach me at 734-330-2465.



Thu, Aug 5, 2010 : 8:30 p.m.

I am a verified voting advocate in Raleigh, NC. I must say that I have had no problem using the AutoMARK when I used it in a test and in a real-life election. Nor have any of my disabled friends. We all found it to be easy to use right away. Even my mother found the AutoMARK much easier to use than the iVotronic machine. I did have trouble using the ADA-compliant ES&S iVotronic DRE. It took me 15 minutes to figure it out and I still wanted to put my fist through the machine. I would really like to see our government get behind publicly-owned open-source voting machines. In Australia, the government owns the machines and there is only one type of machine in the whole country. Therefore, everyone gets the same voter education and fewer people have problems.


Thu, Aug 5, 2010 : 12:44 a.m.

Edward, Thank you for the story and updates on the Automark. You are correct, that little stub causes a lot of problems. However, it is a wonderful machine that allows people who need assistive technology the ability to vote. This machine has allowed people to vote for the very first time in some instances. Unfortunately, the fear of the unknown has been it's biggest downfall as voters and poll workers alike have tended to shy away from it. I appreciate you bringing it to light and sharing your experiences.