Avoid The DRE Train Wreck

Michael J. Fischer

May 17 2005

Connecticut's lever voting machines do not meet new federal standards, which take effect in 2006. The voting machines must be replaced. They fail to produce a permanent paper record of all ballots cast and to provide for private and independent voting by the handicapped.

Many people assume that replacements will be touch-screen DRE (direct electronic recording) machines. The state has received bids for a contract to put one DRE machine in each voting district. Towns will be permitted to buy additional DRE machines under that contract.

DRE machines have many drawbacks, and numerous problems have been reported in states using them. They are fragile and difficult to maintain and likely to become rapidly obsolete.

But the biggest problem is lack of transparency. The state's request for proposals for new voting machines does not require a paper trail.

The electronic ballot inside the machine is invisible to the voter and election officials alike. No one can be sure if it differs from what the voter sees on the screen. No one can be sure whether the printout at the end of the day corresponds to the ballot cast by the voter. If there are errors, we cannot fix them. We cannot do a meaningful recount, because there is no individual record of voter intent. There is just too much uncertainty.

DRE machines can be made more trustworthy by producing a paper record that voters can verify for correctness before casting the ballot. The voter-verified paper record supports meaningful recounts, protects against over- or undercounting and fraud, and provides a means to check the accuracy of the tally. Wending its way through the legislature, Senate Bill 55 would require any voting machines used in the state to produce such a paper record. It has broad support among members of both parties and the secretary of the state, and its passage will be a cause for celebration.

Even with voter-verified paper records, DRE machines are still not a good solution for the state. They are expensive to buy, maintain and store and complicated to administer. Many other states are turning away from DRE machines in favor of simpler optical scan systems.

A precinct-count optical scan system uses printed paper ballots on which voters mark their selections. Able voters mark the ballots by hand. Handicapped voters use a computerized ballot-marking device. Either way, the ballot is then scanned and checked for errors, which the voter is allowed to correct. Once the ballot is accepted, the scanner adds the votes to its totals and places the ballot in a locked ballot box, ready for use later in case of a recount.

Study after study has shown that optical scan systems are far cheaper than fully equipped DRE polling places. A polling place that would require nine DRE machines to accommodate 3,000 voters would need only a single ballot scanner and a single ballot marking device using optical scan technology. It doesn't take a deep analysis to realize that nine pieces of computerized equipment will be far more expensive and difficult to manage than two.

When costs are added up, the results are astounding. For the state as a whole, the all-DRE solution costs $42 million; optical scan $24 million. These are only the initial costs. They ignore the costs that towns must bear in storing and maintaining the delicate electronic equipment.

The state has received $32.7 million in federal funds to upgrade its voting systems. This money is adequate to provide an optical scan solution to all towns, with funds left over for important voter education and poll-worker training. However, under the current plan, the only voting systems eligible for reimbursement are DRE machines. Towns wanting optical scan systems will have to find their own funds to pay for them. Once the federal funds have been spent, even towns wanting DRE machines will have to use scarce local or state funds.

It's time to scrap the DRE plan and start over with new bids for a solution to the state's voting needs.

Michael J. Fischer is a computer science professor at Yale University and founder of, a nonpartisan group of Connecticut voters advocating for verifiable voting.

Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant