November 8, 2010 By Sarah Rich
As predicted, the Nov. 2 elections brought forth myriad electronic voting machine glitches and confusion about emergency backup procedure.
In North Carolina, voters struggled with electoral party selection on direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines: Republican voters claimed they tried to vote for a Republican candidate, but the voting machine selected the Democratic Party choice. The Republican Party responded by filing a lawsuit against the state Board of Elections. In Utah, voting machines malfunctioned due to a programming error with voter cards.
Pam Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonprofit organization, said many of last week’s voting machine glitches stemmed from calibration problems, noting a few instances when machines would need recalibration: if a constituent tried to vote for candidate A and the machine showed candidate B or C as being selected, as was the case in North Carolina; and if voters touched the machine screens with their finger and fingernail simultaneously and it registered the vote selection incorrectly.
In either case, summary screens appear on the DRE machine at the end of the voting process, but constituents often aren’t entirely sure if the machine matches the votes they originally intended to cast because they don’t always have a hard copy record of their election choices with them. And as for recalibration, poll workers either may not know how to, or if they do, it could stall limited voting time, Smith said.
“If a poll worker can actually recalibrate the system on the fly, then that’s probably a good thing, but that also takes time,” Smith said. “If they’re not sure how, they may not take time to do it.
But it likely is worth taking the time to ensure votes are cast correctly.
And making elections trustworthy is a prime concern for David L. Dill, founder of Verified Voting and a computer science professor at Stanford University. If electronic voting machines cause problems that are visible, that means they may also cause problems that voters and poll works aren’t aware of.
“If votes can silently move from one candidate to another, I find that very scary,” Dill said. “And as a computer scientist, I know it’s completely possible — either by accident or because of tampering with the machines.”
Some voting machines need to be recalibrated more often than others, but because they are aging pieces of equipment and are transported to different places, the machines may experience glitches more regularly since they’ve already encountered a lot of wear and tear, Smith said. Like other electronics, if the machines don’t get some form of maintenance, their functionality suffers; in some cases, there are problems that can’t be fixed. They can also break down entirely.
And if a DRE breaks down entirely, emergency preparedness policies must be followed so that all votes are accounted for. Backup policies vary from state to state and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but poll workers need to know their polling place’s emergency plan, Smith said.
“When your equipment breaks down, what are the policies in place for using emergency paper ballots and are those policies being adhered to?” she said. “Are there paper ballots in place and are they being used?”
Smith said fewer DRE machines will be used in the next election, as more jurisdictions are moving to optical scanning voting systems. Using optical scanning, candidate selections are handwritten, so if the system fails, the votes can still be recounted. This method likely will provide a safer, more trustworthy outcome.
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