The Real Issue with Touch-Screen Voting Machines

I’ve said this before, but not as explicitly or as eloquently as Avi Rubin recently did:

I’m very concerned about the impact a high turnout will have on an already stressed voting system. In Maryland, for example, we use touchscreen DRE machines. Precincts only have a handful of these machines, and they create a tight bottleneck in the voting process. As a poll worker, I’ve seen people take 30-45 minutes to vote. I’ve also seen it done in 5 minutes. The average, by my observation, is around 8 or 9 minutes. With an increased turnout, the expected growth in the lines is exponential. That is because the throughput of the election machinery does not change, so additional people will be added to the line much faster than the system’s ability to absorb them, and the lines will be long – very long.

What’s surprising to me is that no one in the mainstream press is talking about this at all, yet it’s actually a really straight-forward problem.

A voter monopolizes a touch-screen voting machine for at least 5 minutes.

A voter monopolizes an optical-scan machine for at most 10 seconds.

If you’re not used to thinking about queues and waiting times, think about the checkout counter at your grocery store. The difference in waiting time between the newbie and the expert checkout employee is enormous. And that’s with probably a 3-4 times speed ratio. The ratio between touch-screens and optical scans is at least 30, often more, and, as Avi points out, that makes for some tremendously long lines.

When you see a long line out the door of the polling station on the news on election day, there’s a good chance that touch-screen voting machines are playing a significant role. (Early voting long lines may be for another reason: having to look up your specific ballot before you can vote, because the early voting centers manage multiple precincts.)

This is an issue that cryptographic voting systems will have to address, when they are finally considered for real elections. On that issue, the paper-based systems certainly have an advantage. But in the meantime, without even considering security, optical can voting machines are the far more economical and efficient solution, by at least an order of magnitude.

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