E-voting '08: Problems, yes, but it could have been worse

By Todd R. Weiss, Computerworld |  Tech & society, election, evoting

Despite reports all day long about an assortment of e-voting machine problems in several U.S. states, no massive systemic meltdown occurred.

Despite widespread pre-election concerns about malfunctioning e-voting hardware, election officials, e-voting activists and experts said Election Day polling generally went well -- even with the problems that did surface.

Pamela Smith, president of San Francisco-based e-voting watchdog group Verified Voting.org, said that constant reports of long lines at polls were predictable, given the attention focused on the race between Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

"We're hearing a variety of reports" about problems involving optical scanners or voters having difficulty voting a straight ticket. What's interesting, she said, is that voters were extra-vigilant while voting. When a scanner isn't working and an election official tells a voter that they will put the completed paper ballot into a special box where it will be counted later, "voters are calling to be sure that's correct," she said.

That is correct, but what's notable is that voters are checking in the first place.

"We've had a number of cases on some of the older systems in Philadelphia where a certain light didn't light up" to announce that the voter's votes were counted, leaving open whether the bulb was out or the votes weren't tabulated, she said. "It's hard to know when there's no paper trail."

John Gideon, executive director of e-voting watchdog group, VotersUnite.org in Bremerton, Wash., said before polls closed that the problems he had heard about were pretty much what he expected. "I'm a bit surprised that there haven't yet been any big reports of failures," he said. "Of course, we still have tabulations coming up.

"We haven't had an election yet where the machines haven't failed somewhere."

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog group Common Cause, agreed that the election seemed to have gone smoothly, even with reports about voting delays and machine glitches.

"We know that problems that we predicted are occurring in more than several states," she said, pointing to long lines caused by too few machines, hardware breakdowns, inadequate supplies of paper ballots and other issues. Some of those problems are "leading to people leaving the polls without being able to vote," Boyle said.

At the same time, "we wouldn't characterize this as a meltdown" of the system. "In spite of [the problems], things are going along."

Even so, the problems that occurred, "reinforce [that] this is an election system that's not equipped to handle a high turnout," she said. "And the high turnout is fantastic. People are excited to vote and participate in their democracy and that is a great thing. It seems like people are hanging in there and are determined to cast their votes."

Doug Lewis, the executive director of the Houston-based National Association of State Election Directors, a professional group that represents election officials in the nation, said the election was like any other -- with some troubles and difficulties as always. "None of it's ever perfect," Lewis said. "You go and have an election and no matter ... how much you plan, some things just don't work on Election Day. But you're usually able to correct those problems quickly."

"The truth of the matter is [today's election issues] are not systemic, it's not overwhelming," Lewis said. "It's not going to cause an uproar. It's pretty much a normal Election Day, even though it's a heavy turnout Election Day."

Election officials who investigated reports that came into election hotlines were often unable to duplicate or substantiate the reports, he said. "From our standpoint, we're not seeing enormous numbers of incidents reported that ... you can tie down to actual problems," he said. "We see a whole lot of anecdotal problems that always get reported on Election Day, but when you ask for specifics, they tend to disappear."

In its national update Tuesday afternoon, Jon Greenbaum, the legal lead for e-voting watchdog group, the Election Protection Coalition, said that problems reported with machine voting in Florida, California and other states show that the election community has not yet devised a satisfactory system. As far as solving the "machine problem, all we've done is gotten rid of punch cards and lever machines."

"Some of that is due to problems within the machines themselves, and some is due to issues involving humans," he said. "This is an area that really calls out for some investment in terms of technology; greater uniformity would also help. If we had greater uniformity for the type of technology that is being used, it would be easier to fix problems. Take Virginia -- you have eight or nine different types of equipment being used. You can't take voting machines from one jurisdiction and have another jurisdiction that needs them use them. You can't have the state stock up, because there are too many different types of machines used."

In Ohio, Jeff Ortega, a spokesman for Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, said that with an expected voter turnout of 80%, there were some delays of up to an hour at some polling places. But most lines moved much faster than that across the state.
"The line issue has been a concern for Secretary Brunner for some time," he said.

In Ohio, there were "no major problems to speak of in terms of activities at the polls" across the state, he said. The problems that occurred included "some minor hiccups in various places around the state" related to the voter-verifiable paper trail print-outs that are attached to touch-screen machines. In some cases, it took several tries to get the paper rolling as it's designed to, he said.

Leslie Amoros, press secretary for Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro A. Cortes, said that the elections went "really well." She acknowledged media reports of long lines and sporadic e-voting equipment problems in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other parts of the commonwealth, but said such problems were resolved.

"That's typical Election-Day fare," she said. "There have been a couple of voting systems going down, but they're being brought back up within five minutes. Overall, commonwealth-wide, things are going fairly well."

County election officials were directed to prepare for high turnouts -- as much as 80% -- which is very high, she said. "We have been work with counties for months to prepare for this."

There are 8.76 million registered voters in Pennsylvania for this election, she said, an all-time record. That's up from 8.37 million registered voters four years ago.

Jennifer Krell Davis, a spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning, said that were only been minor e-voting issues across the state, with the problems corrected as needed. "Those [problematic] machines have been replaced or repaired," Davis said several hours before polls closed. "Everything's going smoothly now and we expect it to go as well for the rest of the day."

In Colorado, Secretary of State spokesman Rich Coolidge said that no problems had been reported across the state by early afternoon. "Everything is going very smoothly," Coolidge said.

More than 1.7 million of the 2.6 million active registered voters had voted by mail or early voting before Election Day, and total vote turnout was expected to exceed 90 percent.

G. Terry Madonna, a political pollster and director of the Center for Politics & Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., has been watching elections for decades and said this one is apparently no more problematic than in past years.

What would make e-voting systems more trustworthy, he said, are requirements for voter-verifiable paper trails so that accurate, secure records could be kept of each vote. "I've read the studies that came out after 2000 and 2004 ... about all the difficulties, Madonna said. "My own belief is I'd rather have a paper trail ... in any of the computer-assisted voting devices."

"We can do it for an [ATM] machine," he said. "Many states already have it. I'm a strong supporter of that."

Madonna said he's not worried about someone switching integrated chips and hacking machines. "I'm not a conspiracy guy," he said. "It's possible to remove a chip and replace it. I don't necessarily think that that's the problem. But I do think that with all the money we put into government problems, we put too little time and money into voting systems."

He's not worried about the results of Tuesday's elections, he said. "Do I think an election this year hinges on it? I would say no. But I think we've not thought hard enough to remove all doubt."

Computerworld's Mike Barton and Heather Havenstein contributed to this report.

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