A new study commissioned by the state of Maryland has just taken a close look at the relative cost of optical-scan paper-ballot voting systems compared with electronic touch-screen systems, and found that optical-scan paper-ballot systems are less expensive . These findings are timely and important not only for Maryland, but for other states as well. With Maryland’s direct-recording electronic voting machines (DREs) approaching the end of their useful lifespan, the report by the Department of Legislative Services notes that using the systems becomes increasingly risky as the machines age. The report recommends that the State should move to implement optical scan systems for “long-term cost-effectiveness and cost control.” and that “Maryland would spend $9.5 million less on an optical scan system than it would on a DRE system. Both [Operations and Maintenance]and capital costs are expected to be lower over the long term under an optical scan system.”

Using current costs of service contracts and cost proposals submitted to the State, the study concludes that “Overall, the cost of continuing to use the state’s current voting system will be higher than transitioning to an optical scanning system.” The study compared price quotes submitted to Maryland with five other states and ascertained that the proposed purchase of the optical scan devices and related equipment appears to be in line with what other jurisdictions have paid for identical equipment. In all cases where direct comparisons can be made of ES&S pricing on software and hardware from past contracts, the price quotes in the Maryland response are comparable or better.”

The study warned that using the State’s aging DREs risks equipment failure, noting that  Georgia local election officials with whom we spoke voiced uncertainty about the reliability of the equipment beyond the 10 year lifespan.” With Maryland’s DREs approaching the end of the manufacturer’s official 10 year life expectancy, the report states “It is not possible to anticipate a failure rate for future use of equipment that has surpassed its expected lifespan.

The study recommends that “Maryland should move quickly to initiate a phased implementation of optical scan systems if it intends to use them for the 2012 Presidential election.” Analyzing the costs of continuing to use current DREs vs. replacing them with new scanners, the study observes that “Relative to a scenario in which DREs continue to be used and DRE units are replaced at the end of their useful life, a transition to optical scan units would be more cost effective.”

The Maryland Voting Systems study makes a clear case for the cost benefits of switching over to optical scanners. It is an important document that bears close scrutiny by  States using older paperless DRE systems.  New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia in particular use older DREs and have enacted laws to transition away from paperless voting.   Not only will voters in these States benefit by changing to paper ballot voting systems sooner rather than later, but so will the bottom line.

Download the full report (PDF)