Update: E-voting machine woes stop some voters N.Y.

Machine shutdowns reportedly cause long delays in casting votes in New York primary election

Problems with electronic voting machines at several polling locations across New York state were reported today as voters attempted to cast ballots in the state's primary election.

The state is one of the last to use voting machines that comply with federal legislation called the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

According to a report in the New York Times today, the opening of some polling sites in Brooklyn was delayed by up to three and a half hours because election workers were unable for a time to get new optical scan systems to function.

And at those polling stations that opened on schedule, some voters had wait for lengthy periods before the new systems would accept completed ballots, the newspaper said.

In Pelham, in Westchester County, three out of five optical scan machines could not be used for hours because of a glitch involving paper feeds, according to an Associated Press report.

Voters were either turned away or given emergency paper ballots during the two and a half hours the machines were down, the AP reported. The AP later reported that the problem was traced to glue on the back of some paper in the machines.

Around midmorning today, two of four new optical scan machines at a polling station in Syosset, a community in Nassau County on Long Island, started generating error messages after voters had cast their ballots. The machines were taken out of service for a time, according to a report in the Syosset Patch online news site. The Patch reported that the problems occurred when paper ballots clogged two machines.

The primary election is the first following New York's decision to finally start using HAVA-compliant systems. Congress' passage of the Help America Vote Act was prompted by controversies associated with the 2000 presidential elections. The law requires that all mechanical voting systems be replaced with e-voting systems that can maintain a paper record of every vote cast.

New York's new paper-ballot and scanning system requires voters to mark their choices on a paper ballot using a pen or a ballot marking device and then insert it into a scanner.

According to an official description (download PDF), the new system uses 11-by-17-inch paper ballots, which are smaller than those used in the lever machines used in previous elections. The scanner tabulates votes at the end of polling.

In New York City alone, some 36,000 poll workers were trained to use new systems while the city conducted performance tests on close to 5,700 optical scanners and ballot marking devices.

The city has had to renovate more than 150,000 square feet of space at its voting machine facility to store the new systems.

Sean Flaherty, a policy analyst at Verified Voting, a nonprofit election watchdog group, said it's hard to compare what might be going on in New York right now with what other states experienced when they made similar moves to new voting machine technologies.

But what has proved vital to successful transitions in the past is training, he said.

"Poll worker training is the name of the game for new voting systems," he said. It's a task that is left to county and city governments to fulfill, and how well it's done can determine how smooth the transition is.

Bo Lipari, founder of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, said his organization received several reports of problems associated with the new voting machines. For the most part, New York City appears to be having more problems than other parts of the state, he said.

Most of the problems appear to be related to training and bureaucratic issues, not technical ones, he said. Unlike other parts of the state, New York City did not take part in a pilot project to test the systems last year and some of the problems city elections faced today stem directly from that decision, he said.

Lipari said he has received reports of election officials taking ballots from voters hands and inserting them into the optical scanners on their behalf, apparently unaware that it is illegal to do so. There have also been cases of poll officials being unsure or unaware of the procedures involved with the new systems.

Most of the technical problems Lipari heard about were related to systems not starting up. "A good question to ask is what is causing these startup problems, how extensive are they, and what are the circumstances under which the machines are freezing up," he said.

Valerie Vasquez, a spokeswoman for The Board of Elections in the City of New York, said the board is working to resolve the problems. "It's important to note a majority of the poll sites are working properly and many voters are having a positive experience," she said.

She added that the board had been aware of potentially "significant challenges" tied to the use of the new machines and had prepared for it via increased poll worker training.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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