Plans to use electronic voting machines in Tuesday's presidential election appear to be largely unaltered in states that were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.
Despite widespread power outages and other hurricane related damage, election officials in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware remained confident that their electronic voting machines would be up and running on Election Day.
The four states are among 17 in the nation where voters will use paperless Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines to cast their ballots. Of these states, New Jersey, Delaware and five others will use paperless machines statewide. All ballots cast in these states will be on DREs that support no paper trail. The other states, which include Texas, Colorado, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania, will use a mix of paper ballots and DRE voting systems that are paperless.
Election watchdog groups such as Verified Voting and Common Cause have expressed concern over the use of paperless DREs because they say votes cast using such machines are much harder to audit compared with paper ballots. The widespread power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy heightened these concerns and prompted some to wonder what would happen if power was not restored in time for the elections in these states.
"While most of those states require a small percentage of emergency paper ballots be made available at the precincts, that number is unlikely to be enough in the event that voting machines are unavailable all day at the polls on November 6th," cautioned veteran blogger Brad Friedman, who maintains a blog that chronicles election issues.
Battery backups on the electronic touch-screen systems are unreliable at best and, even when working, can only be counted on for a small number of hours, Friedman wrote. "Power loss on Election Day is just another, among a myriad of reasons why forcing voters to use such systems is insane and extraordinarily disrespectful to the electorate in such jurisdictions," he wrote. Friedman is one among many election observers who says that paper ballots offer the most reliable option for voters.
But election officials in some of the hurricane-affected states insisted they would be ready despite the challenges.
Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said the commonwealth was still gathering information from counties about damage to the state's 9,300 or so polling stations and e-voting equipment from the storm. Current indications are that all but a handful of polling stations in the southeastern part of the state will be functioning normally next Tuesday, he said.
Almost all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties are slated to use paperless DRE's next week. Gov. Tom Corbett has been in touch with state utility companies to get power restored to all polling stations as quickly as possible, Ruman said. Utility companies have said that once they finish restoring services to hospitals and first responders they will address polling place outages, he said.
As of late Thursday, more than 150,000 residents in 29 Pennsylvania counties were without power. "Utility companies have pledged they will have all polling stations back online by the elections. We are hopeful that at least the vast majority of polls will be powered before Tuesday," Ruman said