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Electronic Voting: The Latest News

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; 3:59 PM

Nov. 3: The Day After

Dirty tricks played on voters, registration disputes and, oh yes, glitches and breakdowns affecting electronic voting machines across the nation. That's the summing-up of U.S. polling-place problems yesterday, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

Machine problems were widely spread rather than widespread, though the Times quoted one source saying the lay of the land is still terra incognita: "Computer experts said it was still too early to determine whether the failures had only inconvenienced voters in limited areas or had actually corrupted the vote totals. 'There are obviously problems around the country, but we don't have a good overall picture yet,' said Stanford University professor David Dill, who organized a nationwide effort to monitor computerized voting systems. 'We are still in the fog of war right now.'"

About This Article
From washingtonpost.com at 12:00 AM

The nature of the controversy surrounding electronic voting has changed little since reports surfaced in the past year questioning its security and reliability. What has changed is the urgency. With time running out between now and Election Day, more activists, politicians and -- most importantly -- voters want firm answers about whether the technology that more than 50 million people will use to choose their president this year will record their choices correctly.

Most experts on either side of the issue acknowledge that it would be virtually impossible to modify paperless machines to include voter-verified paper records, but that is not stopping an increasingly vocal grassroots movement from trying to make that change happen before Nov. 2. In at least one case in Florida, a state with a unique and notorious history of Election Day troubles, a federal judge ruled that a paper trail is a must.

washingtonpost.com has presented ongoing coverage of some of the effects that the electronic voting debate is having on the D.C. metropolitan area. Here we offer a roundup of some of the major electronic voting issues taking place with increasing frequency around the country in the runup to the election. Many of these stories reflect an increasing awareness in the media and among voters of the challenges facing the voting process throughout the nation, coupled with a realization that although the debate is more topical than ever, its resolution will not come until after the nation goes back to the polls for what is anticipated to be one of the closest presidential elections in many years.

The most recent entries are listed first.

• The Star-Ledger in Newark was more explicit in its headline than many other news sources: "For some voters nationally, e-ballot experience gets 'F'." More from the Star-Ledger: "When some voters tried to vote on electronic machines in Florida's Palm Beach County yesterday, they got a rude surprise: Candidates already were selected on the touchscreens. Others claimed they pressed the button for one candidate, only to find the opponent's name kept lighting up. In Philadelphia and New Orleans, voters were sent home when touchscreens failed to boot up. The anecdotal reports were compiled by computer experts and watchdog groups, who said more than 600 glitches nationwide proved that these ATM-like machines should have paper printouts that voters can verify and that officials can recount." Wired also followed up on these reports.

• We heard about a number of these reports at washingtonpost.com, but all we were able to verify yesterday is that people loved the machines, were only slightly concerned about their votes not being counted and that problems that did occur seemed to reflect the occasional fallibility of all technology rather than a conspiracy between the GOP and the voting machine manufacturers to fix the elections (though today's acknowledgement of a Bush victory could be more than a handy coincidence, we suppose).

• The Baltimore Sun characterized the news as generally good, but gave ample space to reported problems: "Some voters complained about missing races on their ballots and the hypersensitivity of the screens, which caused them to accidentally vote for the wrong candidate. Machines malfunctioned at several polling places, leaving voters waiting in line. And some people weren't ready when machines automatically skipped forward to the next screen. Linda Schade, whose group TrueVoteMD stationed volunteers at polling places across the state to record voter complaints, said the group had received more than 400 phone calls by late afternoon. A national watchdog organization that monitored polls across the country reported more than 1,000 electronic voting problems."

• There was some fun in Florida too, despite the anti-climactic smooth voting that took place south of the Okeefenokee: "Voting machines broke down at precincts in Arlington and northwest Jacksonville, but were fixed within a few hours. Although poll workers said all those ballots would be counted, some voters still were worried," the Jacksonville Times-Union reported. "A glitch was reported shortly after 8 a.m. at the Christ the King Church in Arlington when the voting machine kept spitting ballots back out, said Laverne Lancaster, 63. Election officials were dispatched to help. The machine was fixed by 9:15 a.m. About 200 ballots locked away before the repair would be counted after the polls close, assistant clerk Anna Doyle said."

And from the Naples News, a report of a buggy tabulator: "A computer glitch held up Collier County election officials from counting votes for more than three hours on election night. ... 'This had nothing to do with the iVotronics [voting machines],' said Gary Beauchamp, deputy assistant supervisor of elections, during a 10:15 p.m. press conference Tuesday. He explained that all 96 Collier voting precincts had sent in the day's results, but during the tabulation process, there was a problem because 'the file refreshes to zero and it did not refresh.' At 8 p.m., he had the problem file analyzed by technicians at ES&S, the Omaha, Neb.-based company that the county paid $4.3 million for the equipment."

The St. Petersburg Times had an interesting twist on a problem reported in Maryland and elsewhere: "In counties that used touch screen machines, voters also were puzzled when some machines changed votes before their eyes. Voters said they touched the screen to vote for President Bush and John Kerry would appear as their choice." Hmm ... usually it's the other way around.

Oct. 29: Paper-Trail Advocates Fail in E-Voting Appeal

• Florida's emergency rules for manual recounts of electronic voting machines are A-OK for Election Day, a three-judge state appeals panel ruled. The 2-1 decision upholds a lower-court ruling issued earlier this month. The Associated Press reported that 1st District Court of Appeal Judges Richard Ervin III and Joseph Lewis both favored the lower court judge's ruling, agreeing with attorneys for the Florida secretary of state's office that "without the rule there wouldn't be any uniform directions on what the 15 Florida counties that use touch-screen voting machines should do in the event a manual recount is required," the AP reported.

This ruling comes shortly after a federal judge rejected an argument from Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) that different rules for different kinds of voting machines violates the Constitution's equal protection clause.

More from the AP: "Department of State spokeswoman Alia Faraj said the judges in both cases have now 'clearly outlined that the department has done everything it can to comply with state law as it relates to what a manual recount should be.'"

• And for all those wondering how ATM maker Diebold ever got into the e-voting machine game, check out USA Today. The paper today provided the answer: "Diebold got into the voting business almost by accident. In 1999, it bought a Brazilian company for its ATM business; that company also made voting machines that were used in Brazilian elections. After hanging chads and recounts confounded the 2000 election, Diebold answered a nationwide call to replace punch-card and lever machines. ... The company's hopes were buoyed when Congress set aside $3.8 billion for states to upgrade voting machines. In 2002, Diebold bought Canada-based Global Election Systems. Big orders from Maryland and Georgia followed." And the rest, of course, is history.

Oct. 28: Reach Out and Touch-Screen Someone

• Someone is calling Lee County, Fla., voters to tell them they should ask for paper ballots when they go to the polls next week, the Fort Myers News-Press reported.

"Sharon Harrington, Lee County supervisor of elections, said she's heard from concerned voters who said they've been getting phone calls telling them to 'make sure they get a paper ballot at the polls,'" the News-Press wrote in an article today. "One of the phone calls encouraging voters to ask for a paper ballot is a taped message from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., according to Harrington. Attempts to reach a Clinton aide in Washington, D.C., for comment were unsuccessful."

Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said he did not know whether the senator taped such a message, but said it was unlikely. A spokesman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign told us that the Democratic National Committee usually handles "robo-calls," the automated messages featuring celebrities, politicians and other campaign supporters engaging in get-out-the-vote efforts. A DNC official in Florida has not returned a telephone call seeking comment... yet.

Insisting on a paper ballot in Lee County could prove troublesome, the News-Press noted: "Under Florida law, voters insistent on using a paper ballot Tuesday in Lee County could vote with an absentee ballot, but they won't be able to get one at the polls, Harrington said. They would have to get it from one of the county election offices and return it in its proper envelope to the office by the time the polls close at 7 p.m. Provisional ballots, on the other hand, will be handed out at the polls if a voter's eligibility cannot be verified at the site. Voters can get a provisional ballot only at their assigned precincts."

• Here's a quick note from the Miami Herald on ensuring that your vote counts: "By now, [the basics have] been drilled into the head of most Floridians. Study the ballot ahead of time. If the electronic machine is confusing or pops up a ballot in the wrong language or from the wrong place, demand help. When done, press that red vote button. Along with the ID, bring patience -- and maybe a book."

• This is not specifically related to e-voting, but it's still interesting: The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel provided some handy statistics that haven't shown up in much of the election coverage out there so far: "On average, if voters take more than 8 minutes each, polling sites could become clogged."

And more: "There are about 744,000 registered voters in Palm Beach County. [Supervisor of Elections Theresa] LePore will release an official voter turnout prediction later this week. But about 520,800 people can be expected to vote, applying the 70 percent turnout among registered voters from the 2000 election. Through early and absentee voting, about 125,000 people will have cast ballots before Election Day, according to LePore's estimates. That means that roughly 400,000 people could vote Tuesday in Palm Beach County. With 4,300 touch-screen machines scattered across 692 precincts, an average of 93 people would vote per machine. The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so voters will have 7 minutes and 45 seconds each to cast their ballots -- if everyone is to be squeezed in."

• The Rocky Mountain News published its e-voting overview piece today. The paper reported that electronic voting will take place only in "a handful" of counties in Colorado, but said the controversy over machine reliability still concerns voters. With that in mind, the article leans heavily toward sources who tell the paper that voter fears are largely overblown.

• Don't tell the San Jose Mercury News about overblown. The paper is reporting a looming dose of mass confusion come Election Day: "If you don't want to use the new technology in Santa Clara County, poll workers will offer paper ballots as an e-voting alternative only if asked. In Napa County, you will be bumped from line and asked to wait. Until Wednesday, Merced County had planned to essentially treat voters who ask for paper ballots as suspect and subject them to a higher level of scrutiny. The last-minute interpretations of new state rules have e-voting critics worried that Californians who have concerns about the accuracy of the machines will face unfair hurdles."

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