February 28, 2024

A reasonably priced Ballot On Demand system from Hart Intercivic

To run vote centers that must supply many different ballot styles, for hand-markable paper ballots to be counted by optical scanners, it’s convenient and effective to use ballot-on-demand (BOD) printers.  When the voter signs in at the vote center, the BOD laser printer produces a hand-markable optical scan ballot, with the appropriate choice of contests and candidates from the voter’s home precinct, for the voter to fill in with a pen.  But some voting-equipment vendors have been charging extremely high prices for their BOD systems, perhaps because they want to sell more of their other products instead.  That’s why it’s refreshing to see that Hart Intercivic has been selling optical-scan polling-place systems (for hand-marked paper ballots) that come with a reasonably priced BOD printer.  And jurisdictions can use such printers in other ways besides BOD in the polling place, to save money on ballot-printing costs.

For several years now the consensus of election security experts has been that, to better trust our elections, we should vote with hand-marked optical-scan paper ballots, counted by optical-scan vote tabulator (either right there in the polling place, or in a central location to which ballot boxes are transported).  And we must be able to recount or audit those ballots by human inspection, because we can’t know for sure whether the optical-scan voting machine is loaded with the legitimate (accurate) software or with fraudulent (cheating) software; or whether the machines are inadvertently misconfigured, or malfunctioning, or counting the same data twice by mistake.

Back in the day where every voter voted in a particular assigned polling place, it was fairly simple to provide at each polling place a batch of preprinted optical-scan ballots, with that precinct’s “ballot style”–that is, the contests and candidates that the voters in that precinct are allowed to vote on.

But now many states have vote centers, which allow any voter from anywhere in the same county to cast their ballot–even though the county may have many different jurisdictions (towns and wards and school districts) each with different contests to vote on.  The vote center must be able to supply many different ballot styles.  Then (when using hand-marked paper ballots) the pollworker hands to each voter the appropriate ballot, depending on which precinct the voter is registered in.

When using preprinted paper ballots (with ovals for the voter to fill in), does that mean the vote center has to stock many different ballot styles and keep them all organized?  Well, yes.  That’s what’s done in many counties.  It’s not so difficult.

But some election officials don’t like preprinted paper ballots, for a few reasons:  it’s a logistical hassle to deal with so many different batches of paper, it can be expensive to get them printed, and you have to print enough for all the voters who might show up, which means you need to print more than you’ll actually use.

So an attractive option is Ballot on Demand.  When the voter signs the e-pollbook at the vote center, the e-pollbook directs a laser printer to print the right ballot for that voter, who then takes it to a voting booth and marks it with a pen.  Then the voter deposits it into a ballot box or into an optical-scan tabulator (which also retains it in a ballot box after scanning).   No wasted paper, no expense of contracts with specialized printing companies, no logistical hassle.

Well, there’s some logistical hassle.  The printer might run out of toner, the e-pollbooks might fail, the e-pollbooks might select the wrong ballot style, there might be a power failure.  So you need to have someone available who can fix problems like that, which is why BOD might be better suited for vote centers than for numerous election-day precinct-based polling places.

BOD is a far better option than “ballot marking devices” (BMDs), which are touchscreens on which the voter makes selections that are then printed onto a paper ballot.  I’ve written elsewhere about the severe disadvantages of BMDs.  They’re bad for cybersecurity reasons, but also they’re more expensive, because you need several BMDs per vote center, instead of just one or two BOD printers.

So that’s why I was disappointed to see that two of the biggest election-equipment vendors are not making good BOD solutions available to their customers–our states and counties.  For example, in April 2021 Dominion Voting Systems proposed to Camden County NJ a price list in which each BOD printer would cost $21,560 (including software licenses).  That’s outrageous.  In contrast, Dominion’s optical scanners were priced at $4,500 each, which is a very reasonable price; and their BMDs were priced at $5,430 – but you’d have to buy 4 or 5 BMDs for each vote center, instead of one BOD.  It seems like Dominion doesn’t want people to buy BOD systems that allow hand-marked paper ballots, they want to push their BMD touchscreen product.   And another big vendor, ES&S, is also pushing their touchscreens and not making it easy for election officials to opt for Ballot on Demand.

And that’s why I am very happy to see that Hart Intercivic, the third major voting-equipment maker in the United States, is selling polling-place systems that have very reasonably priced Ballot on Demand printers.   Here’s a 2018 contract between Hart and Kerr County, Texas, in which the BOD (listed as “Verity Print”) costs $5,675.   Even better, unlike thermal-paper BMDs where you have to buy blank ballot cards from the vendor, laser papers use plain paper that you can source at competitive prices (or with your choice of watermark).

Hart Intercivic “Verity Print” portable ballot printer (the white box is a laser printer)

So let me suggest to any jurisdiction getting quotes on the purchase of voting equipment:  Use ballot-on-demand rather than ballot-marking devices; get bids at least from the big three (Hart, Dominion, ES&S); and if their price for BOD is more like $20k than $5k, ask them why.

Actually, Kerr County does not use their Verity Print machines as Ballot-on-Demand printers in their vote centers.  They use them in a different way.

Ballots in Kerr County are preprinted optical-scan paper ballots, both in the two Early Voting Locations and in their Election Day precincts.  (Voters with disabilities can request to use a DRE voting machine instead.)  For each election the county orders preprinted ballots from Hart in up to 20 or 40 ballot styles, depending on the election (there are 20 precincts but they may be subdivided if there are school board contests).  They supply each Early Voting location with packets of each ballot style.  The pollworkers give to each voter the ballot style corresponding to their precinct of registration.  When early voting ends (4 days before Election Day), they transfer the unopened packets to the appropriate precinct locations for Election Day voting, and transfer the opened packets to the central election office for accounting and reconciliation.

When the county orders preprinted ballots from the vendor, they estimate voter turnout.  For example, if some precinct has 5000 registered voters and they estimate turnout of 3000 voters, they might order 3500 ballots in that style.  If, during election day, they find that turnout is higher than expected at some precinct, the county uses their Verity Print system (with laser printers) to print additional ballots and rush them to the polling place.    By not ordering 5000 ballots that most likely won’t all be needed, they save money (and trees).

Kerr County’s method makes a lot of sense:  preprinted, hand-marked, optical-scan paper ballots, without wasting much paper.  After the paper ballots are counted by the optical scanners, it would be a good thing to have an audit (a full hand recount or a well-chosen statistical sample of ballots, not ballot boxes) before certifying election resultsBut in terms of how the ballots are created, given to voters, marked by voters, and initially counted by machine, I think Kerr County gets it right.

Comments

  1. When the voter signs in at the vote center, the BOD laser printer produces a hand-markable optical scan ballot, with the appropriate choice of contests and candidates from the voter’s home precinct, for the voter to fill in with a pen.

    How do you convince the voter that the ballot does not contain her name or other identifier?

    Switching one bit per character can store a 32-bit number in 32 characters; if these are distributed around the page, it would look like random printer noise.

Speak Your Mind

*