November 03, 2008, 10:11 AM — Pamela Smith, a longtime critic of electronic voting machines, is worried more about long lines on Tuesday, election day in the U.S.
Any kind of equipment breakdown in places like Pennsylvania and Virginia could cause problems, said Smith, president of Verified Voting, an advocacy group focused on improving voting systems. Those two states don't have polls open for early voting, and there has been a record number of new voter registrations in many parts of the country, particularly among Democrats energized by presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign.
Several states have already reported long lines during early voting. "This is an election that will sort of stress-test the [election] systems," Smith said. "Any problem that's going to come up is going to be amplified."
Several states do not have adequate numbers of voting machines in place to back up malfunctioning equipment, Smith said. The problem will be most acute in states with touch-screen machines; in places with optical scan machines, voters can continue to cast ballots on paper if the scanning machine goes down.
In addition to having no early voting, Pennsylvania and Virginia do not require paper-trail backups with touch-screen electronic voting machines. Critics of e-voting say that without a paper trail, there's no way to audit the results of a touch-screen machine, often called DREs, or direct recording electronic machines.
Professor Alec Yasinsac, dean of the School of Computer and Information Sciences at the University of South Alabama, is keeping an eye on two states: Florida and Ohio. Both states have had tight elections for president in past years, and this year promises more of the same.
Florida, with its hanging chads on punch-card ballots during the 2000 election, was the inspiration for the U.S. Congress to pass legislation encouraging states to move to more modern voting technologies. Then, in 2006, in a tight race for Florida's 13th congressional seat, touch-screen voting machines didn't record a vote from more than 18,000 people who voted in other races.
Florida has since scrapped most of its touch-screen e-voting machines in favor of an optical scan system, in which voters mark paper ballots that are then scanned electronically. The state still has touch-screen machines for voters with disabilities, and it doesn't require paper-trail backups on those machines.
Ohio has also faced problems with e-voting machines, both during the 2004 presidential election and during a primary election earlier this year, when e-voting machines dropped hundreds of votes in several counties.
Since the 2006 general election, four Ohio counties have switched from touch-screen machines to optical scan systems. Voters in Cuyahoga County, the state's most populous county, will be casting ballots on their third voting system in the past three general elections, going from punch cards in 2004 to touch-screen machines in 2006 to optical-scan systems this year. During pre-voting, some voting locations have changed as well.
Yasinsac, who serves the voting subcommittee of the U.S. Association for Computing Machinery, sees the potential for trouble when voting jurisdictions switch voting systems suddenly, without having time to train workers and test the systems.
"It's difficult to get voting procedures to change in a short period of time," Yasinsac said. "There have been issues ... already of not having the procedures in place and not having experienced people who've run that type of system before."
Still, Yasinsac generally believes voting officials have worked hard to minimize problems. Since 2004, more than 20 states have moved toward requiring backup paper records with touch-screen e-voting machines. "My understanding and experience is that elections officials are ready for this election, and folks should go to the polls with confidence that they will be able to vote in a timely and efficient manner," he said.
When they're using electronic voting machines, voters should look out for problems, such as vote-flipping that some voters have reported in West Virginia, Yasinsac said.
State officials defended their efforts, saying they expect elections to run smoothly. Ohio, with about 660,000 new voter registrations since the 2006 election, has taken several steps to ensure a smooth election, said Jeff Ortega, a spokesman for the secretary of state. In the 53 Ohio counties that use touch-screen machines, voters will have the option of voting on paper ballots, and paper ballots will be available if machines malfunction, he said.
In Pennsylvania, where nearly 400,000 people have registered as new voters since late April, the Department of State has been urging counties to increase the number of voting machines, said Rebecca Halton, a spokeswoman. Pennsylvania uses a mix of touch-screen and optical scan machines.
The state doesn't have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, but voting officials are ready for high turnouts, Halton said. "We're confident in everyone's level of preparation for Tuesday," Halton said. "We're really looking forward to Tuesday."
Still, Halton advised Pennsylvania voters to go to the polls during off-peak times, not when polls open in the morning, at lunch or after work. "Come prepared for a line -- bring a book," she said.
Virginia, which uses a combination of optical scan and touch-screen machines, is also ready for record numbers of voters, said Jessica Lane, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Board of Elections. Virginia does not allow early voting other than absentee voting, which voters need to qualify for.
As of Thursday, more than 429,000 Virginia voters had applied for an absentee ballot, and more than 312,000 had returned a voted ballot. In 2004, 222,059 absentee ballots were cast in Virginia.
"We have the most registered voters in Virginia history," Lane said. "We are prepared for lines and we feel we have done the best we can with the resources we have available."
Virginia had nearly 6,000 voting machines in 2004 and will have 10,600 voting machines this year, Lane said.
E-voting vendors expect a smooth election as well, said David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade group. The council "will be monitoring activities for the misreporting of facts, and we will engage in rumor control should it become necessary," he said. "Other than that, the stage is set for the local election officials, and the leading voting system providers will take a supporting role to see that the election runs as smoothly as possible. The vast majority of our local election officials have been through elections with this equipment before ... and have trained their pollworkers extensively."
In addition to Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, there are several other states to watch on Tuesday. Ohio and Florida continue to be toss-up states in the presidential election, although recent polls have Virginia and Pennsylvania, once toss-up states, leaning toward Obama over Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
-- New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana all use touch-screen voting machines exclusively, without paper-trail backups that voters can see. However, Louisiana has paper printouts that election officials can use to check the accuracy of e-voting machines, said Jacques Berry, press secretary for the Louisiana Secretary of State.
A report, issued by Verified Voting and two other organizations in mid-October, called Louisiana one of the least-prepared states for potential voting problems. The report was "utter, utter bull," Berry said. "I will put our election system against any other in the country for security."
None of those states is likely to have close votes for U.S. president, but there could be close congressional races in those states.
-- In addition to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida, four other states that use a combination of optical scan and touch-screen machines do not require paper backups for the touch-screens. Those states are Texas, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. Indiana is a toss-up state in the race for president.
-- Four more states, Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas and Mississippi, use a combination of touch-screen machines and other voting methods. In some jurisdictions, the touch-screen machines have a paper trail, and in other jurisdictions, they don't.