Magazine Article | March 17, 2009

Presidential Election Demands High-Speed Scanner Reliability

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

After installing new high-speed scanners, this election department processed 67,612 mail ballots during the November election 30% faster than the previous scanners would have.

Integrated Solutions, January/February 2009

Harris County, TX, is the nation's third largest county and has more than 1.9 million registered voters. The Election Department of Beverly B. Kaufman, Harris County Clerk's Office (HCCO), is responsible for administering elections for 412 taxing entities (school districts, municipalities, etc.) in addition to Harris County elections. HCCO holds elections in May and November and run-off elections as needed. In addition to people who vote at their designated location, HCCO sends mail ballots to people who can't (disabled, out of town, etc.). During the presidential election this past November, HCCO processed 67,612 mail ballots.

Until 2002, HCCO used punch cards for this function. Voters marked the candidate they wanted to vote for, and HCCO employees counted the votes when the cards were mailed in. Processing large quantities of these punch cards was very time-consuming, and in 2002, HCCO implemented Hart Voting System, an election management solution from Hart InterCivic. The solution consists of three software components used in conjunction with high-speed scanners to create and process mail ballots. Hart Voting System's BOSS (ballot origination software system) is used to create the ballot. Once the ballot is created, it is written to a PCMCIA (personal computer memory card international association) card called an MBB (mobile ballot box). The data from the MBB is entered into Hart Voting System's Ballot Now application, which creates a database folder for the election. From Ballot Now, the ballots are printed and then mailed to the voters. When HCCO receives completed ballots from voters, the ballots are scanned into Ballot Now to save an image of each ballot, called a CVR (cast vote record). At this time, Ballot Now pulls any ballots that are unresolved (i.e. an under vote, over vote, or ballot with writing on it) into a folder to be reviewed to determine voter intent. Once all unresolved CVRs are reviewed and resolved, the CVR images are saved to the MBB and transferred to Hart Voting System's Tally application, which tabulates the results of the election. The Hart Voting System is in use along with scanners at six workstations at HCCO.

"The Hart Voting System has proven a much more efficient way to process our mail ballots than punch cards," says Randy Roberts, system analyst at HCCO. "However, the scanners we'd been using since implementing the solution were beginning to age and perform less reliably." HCCO was experiencing paper jams more frequently, and the pick-rollers on the scanners needed to be replaced often. When Roberts learned the manufacturer discontinued the model of scanner HCCO was using, he knew it was time to find a more reliable scanner and wanted to do so before the high-volume November election. Because of the sensitive nature of voting, voting systems (including the scanners used in them) have to be certified by the Secretary of State. Roberts evaluated the scanners already certified, and HCCO decided on the KODAK i660 production scanner, which can scan 120 pages per minute. "The i660 cost $10,000 more than our previous scanner," says Roberts, "but we knew that the productivity we'd gain due to the speed and reliability of the KODAK i660 would be worth the investment."

HCCO decided to make the investment in two phases and purchased its first three KODAK i660s in September 2008. Roberts installed the scanners himself in less than a day. He created a sample election in the Hart BOSS application and used it to test the scanners. "I ran about 20,000 sample ballots through each scanner to make sure there weren't jams, paper slippage, or misreads," says Roberts. "Seeing how the KODAK i660s performed during this test made me comfortable using them to process mail ballots for the November election."

To process the 67,612 mail ballots HCCO received during the November presidential election, the ballots were scanned into Ballot Now in batches of 50. According to Roberts, the KODAK i660s could handle many more ballots at one time, but he believes scanning in batches of 50 is more manageable.  During the November election, HCCO didn't experience any of the jams that were common with the old scanners. Furthermore, HCCO increased its scanning productivity by more than 30%. "We were able to scan at least 30% more ballots than the previous scanner could in the same amount of time," says Roberts. HCCO has budgeted funds to purchase KODAK i660s for the other three workstations this year.