E-Vote: Report Sends Wake-Up Call to Election Officials

Grades each state on its preparedness for election system breakdowns and offers concrete steps election officials can take in the weeks before the election to make sure every vote is counted accurately.

by / October 17, 2008 0

With millions of Americans expected to confront an array of voting technologies on Nov. 4, yesterday election administration experts from the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause and Verified Voting issued a 50-state report card that grades each state on its preparedness for election system breakdowns and offers concrete steps election officials can take in the weeks before the election to make sure every vote is counted accurately.

The report, Is America Ready to Vote? State Preparations for Voting Machine Problems in 2008 finds that many states have made dramatic improvements in their voting systems, but nevertheless urges election officials to have backup measures in place-like emergency paper ballots and sound-ballot counting procedures-to ensure the integrity of the vote.

"There's no question that in the last few years, election officials around the country have made dramatic improvements that will make it much less likely that voters are disenfranchised due to voting system failures," said Lawrence Norden, director of the Voting Technology Project at the Brennan Center. "Unfortunately, there is still much work to be done to ensure that every voter will get to vote and every vote will be counted if something goes wrong with voting systems on Election Day," he stated.

Is America Ready to Vote? evaluates each state by four criteria: procedures for issuing emergency paper ballots, reconciling ballot tallies, providing paper records of votes cast, and post-election audits. The report reveals a broad range of preparedness across the country to address Election Day voting system meltdowns.

For example:

  • Of the 24 states that use voting machines, eight states, including Colorado and Virginia, have no guidance or requirement to stock emergency paper ballots at the polls, said the report. In contrast, 12 states, including Ohio and North Carolina, recommend emergency paper ballots to be given to voters if machine failures are causing long lines.
  • While all states do some form of ballot accounting and reconciliation, the 50-state report card finds that the requirements in nine states (Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Virginia) fall far short of best practices-meaning there are insufficient provisions to make sure that every vote is counted, and only once.
  • 28 states get "inadequate" on post-election audits because they lack paper records from which to conduct audits (like Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia) or because they do not mandate manual audits even where paper is available (like Michigan, Montana and others).

"In every national election since 2000, we have seen voting system failures stem from machines that won't start, memory cards that can't be read, mis-tallied votes, lost votes and more. As this report shows, most states have not adopted laws and procedures to effectively address an election system meltdown. This will hopefully be a last-minute wake-up call to jurisdictions that aren't prepared for an election system failure," said Susannah Goodman, Common Cause's director of election reform.

Is America Ready to Vote? comes in the wake of several highly publicized voting system problems this election cycle:

  • In the Republican presidential primary in Horry County, South Carolina, touchscreen machines in 80 percent of precincts temporarily failed, and a number of precincts ran out of paper ballots and sent voters to cast provisional ballots at other precincts.
  • In Ohio's March 2008 primary, votes in at least 11 counties were "dropped" when memory cards were uploaded to computer servers due to a software flaw
  • In the August 26, 2008 primary in Palm Beach County, Florida, several votes in a judicial contest
  • disappeared during a recount, and then reappeared in a second and third recount, flipping the outcome to a different winner each time
  • In the September 9, 2008 primary in Washington, D.C., three different counts produced three different vote totals, with thousands of "phantom votes" appearing in the first two counts.

"Our elections are so complex and involve so many jurisdictions, technologies, voters, poll workers, technicians and election workers that some concerns are inevitable. As the machinery of our democracy becomes more complicated, however, the opportunity for error increases -- and we should be prepared," said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting Foundation.

Just this week North Carolina made a significant adjustment to its post-election audit procedures which will increase security and reliability of the audit. This change means that North Carolina's audit rating moves from "Needs Improvement" to "Generally Good," and that North Carolina is now among the six states that have instituted the best policies and procedures to prepare for voting system problems.

Is America Ready to Vote? offers best practices for each criteria, many of which can be implemented in time for the November 4th election:

  • Use of Emergency Paper Ballots. States that use voting machines or lever machines should require all precincts to provide emergency paper ballots in the case of broken machines or long lines caused by poor machine allocation.
  • Sound Ballot Accounting and Vote Reconciliation. At the close of polls on election night, all polling places and county offices should follow sound ballot accounting practices to ensure that a software glitch or poll worker error does not leave some votes uncounted or mis-tallied. Precincts should make sure the number of ballots cast matches the number of voters who have voted, and that any discrepancies are reconciled so no votes are lost.
  • Use of a Voter Verifiable Paper Record. Nearly every state in the country uses some form of electronic voting machine, but 22 states use machines that have no voter-verifiable paper record. In the face of corrupt software or programming errors, election officials should have a paper record of every ballot cast to make sure all votes are counted.
  • Post-Election Audit of Voter Verifiable Paper Record. After the election, states should hold a mandatory comparison of some percentage of the paper ballots to electronic totals to ensure that the totals and specific votes reported by voting machines are accurate.

"Every national election since 2000 has shown us the same thing: voting systems do fail. But we should not have to wait, as we have too often in the past, for a system failure to cause the loss of thousands of votes, or shake the public's confidence in the fairness and accuracy of our elections, before we adopt the best procedures to prevent such meltdowns. We urge states to do what they can to improve their procedures in the remaining weeks before the election," concluded Norden.