Despite dire predictions of chaos and worse, the influx of electronic voting in precincts across the United States on Election Day was more notable for its lack of problems than for any voting catastrophe. And where there were problems, people for the most part still voted.
The massive move to new types of voting machines was the result of widespread voting irregularities in Florida and elsewhere during the 2000 presidential election. While there were still problems, this year did not see anything like the issues of that year, which kept the world from knowing who would be president for more than a month.
“So far, weve had reports of about 600 e-voting problems,” said Will Doherty, executive director of the Verified Voting Foundation, a San Francisco voting rights group. Dohertys organization had run a nationwide resource center to support voters with problems at the polling place, including those who had problems using new electronic voting machines.
Doherty said nearly all of the people who reported problems with the new voting machines Tuesday ultimately were able to vote, either by having the problem with the machine resolved or by using another form of voting—usually a paper ballot.
Doherty said 600 problems represent a miniscule figure when compared with the tens of thousands of polling places, and millions of voters, in the United States. He noted, however, that he expected the number of reported problems to grow to perhaps three times that size in the days following the election. He also said it was his belief that many times, that number of people had problems with voting but didnt call Verified Voting.
According to Verified Votings studies, the problems with electronic voting machines revolved around three basic issues. The first problem, involving touch-screen registration, occurred when a voter would touch a choice for one selection, but a different one would actually show up as having been selected.
The second problem, Doherty said, were machines that didnt work or that stopped working during the voting process. The third problem was incorrect information appearing on the voting-machine screen, with either an incorrect summary or the wrong ballot appearing.
Doherty noted that most of the problems werent specifically related to the electronic nature of e-voting, but rather were problems that can happen with any type of voting machine. In New Orleans, for example, problems with missing or broken machines—or with not having access to electricity—were abundant.
“New Orleans wins the award for worst voting,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Cohn said the problems with voting machines were so bad in New Orleans that her organization petitioned the government there to allow polls to stay open longer so that people could vote.
-Selected Ballots”> The problems with machines, plus problems with inadequate training, lack of access to electricity and the like, were so bad that some polls opened hours late. Cohn said polls in some parishes in Louisiana never opened at all on Election Day.
But generally, reports of machine malfunctions were fewer than many had expected. Despite the record voter turnout, problems were minimal in most areas. “They dont seem to be causing as much of a problem as wed anticipated,” said Common Cause researcher James Benton.
Election staffs appeared to be well-trained and were able to provide backup voting as needed. But there were exceptions, such as in New Orleans, where there was no provision for voting if the electronic voting machines didnt work. “When and if an e-voting machine goes sour, and you dont have paper ballots available, its hard to recover,” Doherty said.
The fact that problems were uncommon didnt mean they were absent, however. According to EFF e-voting attorney Matt Zimmerman, areas of South Florida made famous for botched elections and pregnant chads were finding problems with electronic voting as well.
“In Palm Beach County, voters were presented with ballots that were pre-selected,” Zimmerman said. He said this meant that voting choices had already been made, and that it was up to the voters to clear those selections and enter the votes they really wanted. This problem wasnt noted anywhere else, although neighboring Broward County and Miami-Dade County had problems with broken machines and lacked spares.
In general, however, few patterns appeared that were attributable to e-voting, although a number of problems were indirectly related. Precincts around the country reported to Common Cause that they were opening late, mostly due to training issues that made it harder than expected to get the e-voting machines up and running.
In addition, many jurisdictions, especially in Ohio and Florida, hadnt purchased enough e-voting machines, leaving polling places with fewer machines than were actually required, or without any spares as happened in Miami. The lack of enough machines meant that lines were longer than anticipated, and in some cases, much longer.
In most cases, voting officials offered paper ballots as a backup to problems with e-voting machines. Benton noted that in some jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., voters were choosing paper ballots over e-voting. He predicted that people would choose paper ballots over electronic, given the chance. “You can feel it and touch it,” he said. “People are skeptical of technology.”
As it happened, this wasnt always the case. In a number of precincts, voter reluctance to use paper instead of electronic voting resulted in lines much longer than they might have been.
A number of wire reports said voters in Ohio waited for hours in line, refusing paper ballots because they trusted their e-vote to count but were worried that paper ballots would disappear. Delays in voting, along with a large number of provisional ballots, caused election returns in Ohio to stretch into Wednesday morning.
While most who were involved with tracking e-voting during the election agreed that it went better than theyd expected, they also agreed that voting—electronic or otherwise—needed to be fixed.
The single most common suggestion by those interviewed for this report was that only by finding a way to verify the ballot being cast, and by being able to audit it later, would e-voting be widely accepted.
The most common suggestion was that e-voting machines be equipped with a means of providing a paper trail for later recounts. The state of Nevada required such an audit trail during this election, and machines that could accomplish that were provided by Sequoia Voting Systems. Those machines produce a paper tape that can be inspected by the voter, but that remains sealed inside the machine for later audits.
Many observers suggest that there will be steps in e-voting beyond the machines used in this most recent election. Randy Flood, CEO of the Commonwealth Policy Institute Network in Washington, suggested that even though e-voting in the United States isnt quite ready for prime time, the real future is the Internet.
He said that before that can happen, a number of issues including reach and security need to be solved. In the meantime, “E-voting is the next logical step for citizens to take when they participate in the electoral process in the future,” Flood said. “The sooner we begin the debate on its use, the better.”
For the near future, many eyes are on the vote that was, rather than the vote that is yet to be. The Verified Voting Foundation plans to follow up on e-voting results to determine exactly what happened, how many problems there actually were, and whether any patterns emerge that could indicate where future problems might lie.
While the election results are not in doubt, some observers feel that the reliability of the voting process leaves something to be desired. Ultimately, Common Causes Benton said, that means people have to be satisfied that their vote is being recorded, and that in turn means they have to be able to confirm it. “Trust, but verify,” Benton said.
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