Election Produces Few E-Voting Snags

According to observers, the number of problems was smaller, and the impact on the election less significant than nearly anyone predicted.

WASHINGTON—By all indications, the Nov. 8 midterm elections went off with few hitches that could be blamed on electronic voting, despite the dire predictions of some activists who oppose e-voting.

According to many observers, the number of problems was smaller, and the impact on the election less significant than nearly anyone predicted.

"The headline is: It was not a meltdown," said former Election Assistance Commission member Ray Martinez.

Martinez was one of the original members of the EAC, created to help the United States avoid the chaos of the 2000 presidential elections.

Martinez is now an attorney in private practice in Austin, Texas and a policy adviser on election issues to the Pew Center on States, part of the Pew Charitable Trust.

Martinez consults with state governments on election issues, and helped New Mexico in that states move to new voting technology.

Martinez noted that while there were some glitches, as was expected, overall the election went as planned: Voters were able to vote, and their votes were counted.

"Basically, all of the cries of Chicken Little didnt come true," said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services in Washington, D.C.

"There were hiccups and problems," Brace noted, "but we have not seen a wholesale failure of an entire jurisdiction."

Brace said that the election did not have anyone who won or lost when they shouldnt have due to a problem with e-voting.

But that doesnt mean there werent glitches.

According to Martinez, those problems fell into two categories, technical glitches and procedural or process problems.

He said that in the case of the technical problems, most were related to poll worker training, technical support issues or management issues.

Martinez pointed to a server crash on the central voter database in Denver, for example.

In another instance: "There was a jurisdiction in Indiana where poll workers were unable to get machines started," Martinez said, adding, "the smart cards had low batteries."

"Every election has problems somewhere, someplace," Brace said. "This election was no different."

Brace said that election officials were able to work through the problems and allow voters to cast their ballots.

He said that while there were a few technical issues, those were handled quickly.

In a statement released Nov. 8, the Association for Computing Machinery said that it had heard reports of instances in which voters were unable to vote, or where votes were improperly recorded; however, the organization did not provide any specifics.

/zimages/6/28571.gifTo read more about the potential risks associated with e-voting, click here.

The most serious issues noted by the ACM were delayed poll openings such as those that happened in Ohio and Indiana.

The most significant issue mentioned by the ACM in its statement was the Denver database server crash.

Former ACM President Barbara Simons said in a prepared statement that more testing of electronic voting machines should be a priority.

"These systems need to be tested under conditions that simulate Election Day conditions," Simons said in her statement.

However, both Martinez and Brace say they think theres a lot more to avoiding problems than just testing the voting machines and the voter registration databases.

"Even if you break down the problems in technology, a lot has to do with overwhelming poll workers," Martinez said.

He pointed out that while poll workers do get paid, it is in reality a quasi-volunteer position.

Worse, election workers not only have to deal with the new technology in their new electronic voting or optical scan voting systems, the same people have to deal with changes in the law that are frequently not explained well, and poorly communicated.

"You have to be part computer technician and part lawyer to achieve as a poll worker," Martinez said.

"I think the bottom line issue is that we probably train too little and too late," Brace said.

He pointed out that election workers are usually only paid for Election Day, and not very well then.

He said that this makes it hard to get those workers to be willing to receive training.

Brace said that paying election workers more would help make them more willing to be trained in the technology, but he said he doesnt see that happening, since counties are not typically willing to pay a lot for something that only happens a couple of times a year.

Brace and Martinez noted that despite the poor training and pay, election workers managed to find a way to make the election work.

"I havent heard of fraud or stealing of votes or that sort of thing," Brace noted.

He added that the physical security provisions that jurisdictions already had in place for older machines and ballot boxes worked well for electronic voting.

"The election process is set up with checks and balances," Brace said.

"Election workers deserve a lot of praise," Martinez said. "For the first time, New Mexico was using optical scan, and aside from a few minor glitches, things went well."

"There are plenty of examples where election officials did their due diligence and trained their workers. By no means did I think this was a meltdown yesterday," he said.

"Ultimately, the voters are able to vote, and their votes are being counted," Brace said. "Thats the fundamental process that we go through, and its there and will stay there."

The next step? On Nov. 27, election officials in Virginia will certify the senatorial election by the thinnest of margins, triggering an immediate recount.

The difference this year is that nearly all of Virginias precincts use either electronic voting or optical scan devices. It could be the first all-electronic recount in history.

/zimages/6/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis of technologys impact on government and politics.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...