Watch Out For Voting Day Bugs

By Dick Thornburgh and Richard Celeste
Monday, August 28, 2006

For many years election officials have kept the machinery of American democracy running in the face of sometimes overwhelming difficulties. But this November's elections will pose unprecedented challenges to them.

For many jurisdictions, the 2006 elections will see the first large-scale use of electronic voting systems. Many organizations have learned the hard way that deployment and use of new technologies on a large scale virtually guarantee big surprises and unintended consequences: sudden system crashes, corrupted data or painfully slow systems. The usual remedies are to develop, test and evaluate small-scale prototypes before committing to organization-wide upgrades in technology, and to keep both old and new systems running for a while so that failures in the new system do not paralyze operations.

Unfortunately, faced with the deadlines for deploying enhanced voting systems that were set by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, most electoral jurisdictions have been unable to follow this prudent path. That's why we believe it will be essential this year that jurisdictions have backup and contingency plans that anticipate a wide range of possible failures in their electronic voting systems, including those that occur in the middle of the voting process on Election Day (or days).

The outcome of the November elections seems likely to be very close. Depending on the results of a few races, control of the House or Senate -- or both -- may be at stake, which is likely to lead to close scrutiny of how those elections are carried out. If major problems arise with unproven technology and new election procedures, the political heat will be high indeed.

What problems might crop up on Election Day? Software or hardware problems could render a significant number of voting machines inoperable when they are first turned on. An unexpected sequence of voting inputs on touch screens might cause machines to lock up. Or the cards that voters use to activate voting machines to accept their votes might not work properly. Or voting machines might be inadvertently loaded with the ballot for a neighboring precinct.

Jurisdictions need to come up with contingency plans for such November problems, if they haven't done so already. One possible example: Make preparations to fall back to paper ballots if necessary.

Other problems might include machines that appear to work but then yield an erroneous electronic vote count. Systems could lose votes because they continue to accept them after their memories are full, or because they have incorrectly reset themselves in the middle of the day as voters are attempting to vote.

In such cases, applicable backup technologies such as paper trails, which provide an independent, permanent record of activity on a voting machine, might already be in place. But paper trails themselves have potential problems (such as jammed printers) and voters might be confused by the introduction of an unfamiliar element into the election whose purpose and role will not be clear to many voters.

For any given jurisdiction, the likelihood of a specific problem is low. But with 9,500 jurisdictions in the United States it's likely that problems will occur in some of them. Indeed, many of the problems described above have actually happened in one jurisdiction or another. We don't mean to suggest there will be widespread failures of electronic voting systems. But in this election year, the challenges facing election officials and the nation are formidable. Prudence and reasonable contingency planning should rule at this moment of truth for electronic voting, as election officials across the land work to retain public confidence in the face of new challenges.

Dick Thornburgh is a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania. Richard Celeste is a former Democratic governor of Ohio. They chaired a recent study by the National Academies' National Research Council on electronic voting.

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