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Are design issues to blame for vote 'flipping' in touch-screen machines?

Vendors say no, but critics say e-voting devices aren't designed for most voters

By Todd R. Weiss
October 30, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Are some touch-screen voting machines really "flipping" votes from one candidate to another, or are the voters who claim their votes are being changed just wrong?

With the U.S elections just days away, some voters in some states, including West Virginia, Texas and Tennessee, have reported that electronic touch-screen voting machines are "flipping" their votes to another candidate on the screen.

When those allegations are made, e-voting hardware vendors and local election officials usually blame errant fingers, overhanging jewelry or clothing -- or they argue that the touch screens weren't properly calibrated. But continuing reports about flipping -- sporadic though they may be -- raise questions about the machines themselves, such as when they were designed and what kind of usability testing was done. (For more about e-voting technology, see our Voting technology 2008 page.)

Computerworld asked the four major e-voting machine vendors to talk about how their hardware was originally designed, with an emphasis on whether real-world user testing was done as the devices were being drawn up.

Vendors defend their designs and say they have been proven through sales figures in the marketplace; e-voting critics note the vote-flipping accounts by voters and worry that the machines could cast doubt on the legitimacy of elections.

Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Premier Election Solutions Inc. (formerly Diebold) in Allen, Texas, said that vote-flipping reports are taken seriously. "It's one of those things that when a voter says this occurs, well, I wasn't there, you weren't there, but we can't say that they didn't have that experience," he said. "The key is that poll workers immediately need to be asked for assistance if that happens" so the ballot can be corrected or canceled if needed.

A touch-screen machine can be checked for proper calibration to make sure the spot on the screen that's touched registers the proper vote on the electronic ballot -- or a voter can be redirected to another machine in the polling place, Riggall said.

Despite a smattering of reports elsewhere, there have been no complaints of vote flipping in Georgia, where almost a million people have already cast early ballots using Premier touch-screen machines. "There has not been one claimed occurrence of what is really a calibration issue in all of those votes that have already been cast here," he said. "The nature of a touch-screen device [is that], like any other device, there can be an instance where it's not operating properly. What the majority of our jurisdictions find is that where 'vote flipping' ... or mis-selection is occurring ... in the vast majority of cases they find that the calibration is not out of specification."



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