E-Voting Glitches Examined; Reform Push Planned

Some 17% of the complaints to Common Cause focused on mechanical failure, which is likely to be one of several components in a push for reform as the 2008 presidential

November 9, 2006

4 Min Read
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Voting advocates and computer experts are examining scattered reports of glitches in e-voting machines and planning to call for reform.

About 16,000 voters called a nationwide voter hotline to report complaints or concerns on Election Day, according to Common Cause.

An early analysis showed that the highest percentage of callers (21.3%) complained about difficulties with registration. Those included motor voter programs failing to transfer registrations to elections boards as well as purging of registration lists. Only 6.2% dealt with voter identification, an issue propelled into the spotlight because of several state laws that were overturned and reports that poll workers in a handful of states had turned away, or tried to turn away, several high-ranking elected representatives for insufficient identification.

An analysis in the late afternoon Tuesday showed that 16.9% of the calls focused on mechanical failure, which is likely to be one of several components in a push for voter reform as the 2008 presidential election approaches.

Chellie Pingree, president and CEO of Common Cause, said during a press conference Wednesday that equipment-related problems resulted from lack of poll worker training, missing components, and machines' failure to register the right choice of candidates."We don't know how many places that happened," she said.

Pingree also said that another problem is a lack of a paper trail for recounts. Though none was necessary in the national races this year, some jurisdictions were discussing the possibility to settle disputed local races.

"We're very, very dependent on the accuracy of the machines in a close race," Pingree said. "We're talking about democracy and how it works. It's not working well enough."

Verified Voting founder David Dill said during a press conference that he expected revelations about e-voting machine problems to trickle in over the next several weeks. He pointed to Virginia. There, the race between Republican Senator George Allen and Democratic challenger Jim Webb was initially too close to call.

"Virginia is one of the recalcitrant states with no paper," he said.Dill also said that systems with built-in wireless networking present "severe computer security issues." He said that some working voters might not have been able to return to their precincts to vote after standing in lines waiting for machines that could not be "fired up" on time, especially if there were no paper ballot alternatives.

A bigger problem, he said, was "vote flipping," in which machines displayed votes that were different from what voters entered.

"We got a lot of those reports, both in the press, and I saw e-mail reports," Dill said. "The vote flipping problem is disgraceful. I expect that once we get the data, we'll see that we had this problem all over the country."

Dill said flipping may have been caused by calibration problems, adding that it's easy for people to hack into the machines or for malicious designers to tamper with them without detection. As of early Wednesday afternoon, Dill said he was not aware of any claims of hacking or machine tampering, but he called for serious technical investigations into reported glitches, public disclosure of findings, and corrective action.

Common Cause will analyze its complaint database and use the results for its "Get it straight by 2008" campaign. Although the non-partisan, citizen lobby rarely aligns with the right, its leaders said they're optimistic about gaining Republican support for voter reform after Democrats' victories Tuesday.Although reports of problems were scattered, Century Foundation voting expert Tova Wang said that, for individuals, some amounted to a denial of voting rights.

Dill agreed, stating that although there has been improvement since the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), people have the right to demand more reliability than they have now.

David Bear, a representative for Diebold Election Systems, said that he had not heard any reports of the estimated 125,000 Diebold touch-screen machines and optical scanners in 37 states failing or malfunctioning. He said that the problems he heard about involved combinations of factors, like tasks taking longer than workers expected. He said they did not reflect on the technology, policies, or poll workers' dedication or competence.

"It went about how we expected," he said. "I think, overall, it went extremely well."

Bear said that e-voting machines already undergo scrutiny through a federal and state approval process before elections, monitoring during elections, and then auditing during the canvassing period.Bear hadn't heard of any problems with vote flipping. When machines do display candidates a voter didn't choose, it's probably due to human error, he said. Diebold's machines provide the opportunity to uncheck a candidate's box and fix an erroneous selection. "No other form of voting presents you with a summary screen that allows you to go back," he said.

In the event of a recount, computerized voting would be an improvement over paper ballots, Bear said, pointing out that e-voting machines have already succeeded in reducing one major problem related to recounts: interpretation of voter intent.

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