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Update: Is 'vote flipping' an e-voting problem or user error?

Do e-voting machines mistakenly give votes to the wrong candidates?

By Todd R. Weiss
November 8, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - During Tuesday's midterm elections in the U.S., reports emerged from across the nation about a potential problem called "vote flipping," where a voter selected a candidate on e-voting hardware and the machine counted the vote for an opposing candidate.

The problem has been reported in U.S. elections since 2004 as states move to e-voting in an effort to make the vote-counting process more accurate. Instead, for many Americans, the change has led to more questions than answers, and suspicions that their votes aren't being counted correctly.

But is vote flipping a real problem, as e-voting critics argue? Or is it caused by user error, machine calibration issues or other factors, as e-voting advocates argue?

Election 2006
Stanford University computer science professor David L. Dill, who founded the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation and, has been looking at vote flipping and yesterday called for investigations to determine if there is a real issue.

"People have been way too quick to diagnose the problem," Dill said. Some who have not examined the issue closely quickly call it a touchscreen calibration problem, while others point to different causes. "It could be a calibration problem with the touchscreens, but I'm not sure that anyone really knows yet because no one's looked at it. My answer as a computer scientist is that I want facts ... and all I've heard for two years is speculation."

Dill rejected one theory -- that the problem is a conspiracy to defraud voters of their votes and give the election to the opposition. Once a voter picks a candidate, a review screen shows who they voted for. That ability to review the vote before it is ultimately cast, he said, makes it less likely that fraud is involved.

"It seems to me if you were trying to commit fraud, you wouldn't show [the ballot] to the voter," he said.

One of the possible causes of vote flipping may be voters who place their hands on the side of a machine as they vote, perhaps accidentally touching it with their thumb and erroneously making a selection, he said. In other cases, some e-voting machines use a thumb-operated wheel to advance the electronic screens and when it is turned, it highlights a candidate in the next race on the ballot -- possibly giving a voter the impression that an erroneous choice has been made for them, he said.

The way to figure it out, he said, is to bring together a panel of experts to investigate the issue, confirm it, find ways to fix it and then get any fixes out to voting officials, Dill said. Until then, election officials and watchdog groups across the country will continue to hear reports of vote flipping, he said.

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