Touchscreen Problems Worry Virginia Election Officials

The Virginia Department of Elections found such serious problems with another, aging touchscreen device that they think the State Board of Elections should consider stopping its use altogether.

by Dave Ress, Daily Press / April 3, 2015
(TNS) -- Looking into what went wrong when Virginia Beach supporters of Rep. Scott Rigell couldn't get voting machines to register their choice last November, the state Department of Elections found problems with some touchscreen machines — but not the kind that frustrated Rigell's backers.

Instead, the department found such serious problems with another, aging touchscreen device — AVS WinVote — that it thinks the State Board of Elections should consider stopping its use altogether.

The only community in the area to use those machines is York County, where they are backup machines meant for people whose disabilities make it difficult to use the optical scan machines that are the county's main voting equipment, Registrar Walt Latham said Thursday.

"We'll find some way of managing," he said, when asked if problems with the machines might affect the June primary for the Republican nomination for Clerk of the Circuit Court and two seats on the Board of Supervisors.

The problems in Virginia Beach involved the way the screens were aligned — apparently because of an issue involving the coating material that holds the two surfaces of the touchscreen together — and were not as widespread as election officers first feared, according to an interim report by state Commissioner of Elections Edgardo Cortés.

Only two of the 27 machines a consultant audited had the kind of alignment problems that produced the results some Rigell supporters complained of — recording votes for him as votes for his opponent.

Alignment problems with other machines were minor, and on the whole didn't favor one candidate or another.

Virginia Beach had replaced 70 touchscreens in 2012, when it was alerted to the coating problem, and is planning to replace the others.

In November, dozens of Virginia Beach voters reported that machines were recording their votes for Rigell as votes for his opponent, Suzanne Patrick. The city used 820 touchscreen machines — unlike localities on the Peninsula, it relied on them as its primary means of voting. In Newport News, the two voters who reported problems on Election Day said their votes for Sen. Mark Warner were shown as votes for his GOP opponent, Ed Gillespie.

The more serious problems emerged when the consultant audited the WINVote machines in Henrico and Spotsylvania counties, which are different from the machines Virginia Beach and Newport News use.

In Henrico, the audit found embedded errors because the Windows program the machines use had not been updated in nearly 10 years. Problems with power supplies and wireless access reported by Henrico officials seem to be because of the age of the equipment, the consultant found.

In Spotsylvania, where there were consistent, chronic problems with the machines in one precinct, the consultant found the problem was interference with the machines' wireless communications. The consultant said it could not tell if the interference was intentional or not. The Virginia State Police are investigating.

The General Assembly this year rejected a proposal by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to borrow $28 million to replace aging touchscreen machines across the state, by buying digital scan machines for every precinct in Virginia and moving back to paper ballots. His proposal offered to have the state pay for new machines in every locality and reimburse localities that had already bought machines.

Legislators opposing the idea said they believed localities should have to bear more of the replacement costs.

"Why they didn't accept it I have no idea," McAuliffe said, noting that he had personal experience with faulty machines when he tried "at least 12 times" last November to record his vote for Sen. Mark Warner.

He was able to keep hitting the button, get the vote right, but: "You have some 80-year-old person with macular degeneration, it may not be as easy."

McAuliffe said he did not believe there was any mischief or conspiracy with the voting machine glitches, simply that "they're old and their calibrations are off."

Courtney Mills, staff attorney with the Fair Elections Legal Network, a nonpartisan group that seeks to remove barriers to voting and ensure fair elections, said the State Board of Elections and the General Assembly need to work with localities to remove and replace the machines.

"We understand many local communities are cash-strapped and will need assistance from legislators in Richmond to immediately replace these vulnerable voting machines," Mills said in an email.

Texas-based Advanced Voting Solutions Inc. stopped making voting machines in 2007 after failing to win U.S. Election Commission certification for its equipment, according to VerifiedVoting.org, a nonprofit that lobbies for accurate and secure voting.

The company's phone is disconnected, and its corporate charter has been withdrawn, according to Texas Secretary of State filings.

©2015 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC