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E-voting '08: Problems, yes, but it could have been worse

Scattered malfunctions caused delays but didn't appear to be widespread

By Todd R. Weiss
November 4, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Despite reports all day long about an assortment of e-voting machine problems in several U.S. states, no massive systemic meltdown occurred.

Despite widespread pre-election concerns about malfunctioning e-voting hardware, election officials, e-voting activists and experts said Election Day polling generally went well -- even with the problems that did surface.

Pamela Smith, president of San Francisco-based e-voting watchdog group Verified Voting.org, said that constant reports of long lines at polls were predictable, given the attention focused on the race between Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"We're hearing a variety of reports" about problems involving optical scanners or voters having difficulty voting a straight ticket. What's interesting, she said, is that voters were extra-vigilant while voting. When a scanner isn't working and an election official tells a voter that they will put the completed paper ballot into a special box where it will be counted later, "voters are calling to be sure that's correct," Smith said. "That is correct," but what's notable is that voters are checking in the first place.

"We've had a number of cases on some of the older systems in Philadelphia where a certain light didn't light up" to announce that the voter's votes were counted, leaving open whether the bulb was out or the votes weren't tabulated, Smith said. "It's hard to know when there's no paper trail."

John Gideon, executive director of e-voting watchdog group, VotersUnite.org in Bremerton, Wash., said before polls closed that the problems he had heard about were pretty much what he expected. "I'm a bit surprised that there haven't yet been any big reports of failures," he said. "Of course, we still have tabulations coming up.

"We haven't had an election yet where the machines haven't failed somewhere."

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based government watchdog group Common Cause, agreed that the election seemed to have gone smoothly, even with reports about voting delays and machine glitches.

"We know that problems that we predicted are occurring in more than several states," she said, pointing to long lines caused by insufficient numbers of machines, hardware breakdowns, inadequate supplies of paper ballots and other issues. Some of those problems are "leading to people leaving the polls without being able to vote," Boyle said.

At the same time, "we wouldn't characterize this as a meltdown" of the system. "In spite of [the problems], things are going along."

Even so, the problems that occurred, "reinforce [that] this is an election system that's not equipped to handle a high turnout," she said. "And the high turnout is fantastic. People are excited to vote and participate in their democracy, and that is a great thing. It seems like people are hanging in there and are determined to cast their votes."



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