Voters in Fla., Texas complain of e-voting glitches

Some said their votes were flipped from one candidate to another

Elections officials in southern Florida are downplaying recent reports of glitches encountered during early voting on electronic voting machines -- most notably, a problem known as "vote flipping."

The alleged problems occurred this week in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and were spotlighted in articles in the Miami Herald. Florida was the site of the notorious hanging chads that were central to the disputed presidential election of 2000. In part because of the issues in Florida that year, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which, among other things, was aimed at replacing lever-activated and punch-card systems with electronic devices.

In Miami-Dade County, e-voting machines allegedly flipped candidates -- meaning the candidate chosen by a voter was not the candidate registered by the machine -- something officials denied. "I am happy to report that there are no glitches in any of the electronic voting machines at Miami-Dade early voting locations," said Lester Sola, supervisor of elections for the county. Despite the reported glitches, investigations found no problems, said Sola, who emphasized the precautions taken to ensure accurate voting.

"As a precautionary measure, if a voter makes a complaint about a particular machine, that machine is closed and sealed until a technician can assess the problem and, if necessary, take corrective action," he said. "That is what happened with two machines at early voting. After analysis, we have not found any problems with our machines. All deployed units are operational, and I can assure you that no votes were lost while assessing these units."

The voting device vendor is Election Systems & Software Inc., Sola said, adding that the system will work as planned. "We take many aggressive steps to ensure that the election is programmed and tabulated accurately," he said. "We balance the number of voters that enter a precinct to the number of ballots cast there. We also reconcile each touch-screen unit against audit data to ensure that the results are accurate."

"I have not heard of any situations where a voter has raised this issue [about flipping] without also indicating that they used the review screen to review and change their selection if they feel that was needed," said an ES&S spokesman via e-mail. "That feature was not available to voters using punch cards."

In nearby Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, similar flipping incidents were also reported on ES&S iVotronic systems. Such problems are common for at least a certain percentage of voting machines, according to Peter Corwin, assistant to the Broward County administrator.

He said the machines aren't suffering from a universal software glitch; rather, some individual devices have unique problems. These were addressed by recalibrating the devices, a process that didn't involve the loss of any votes. "Like anything else, we'll shake it out as a minor problem," said Corwin.

Florida isn't alone in encountering such glitches. In Texas, there have also been complaints about flipping in some systems. One Collin County voter even blogged about it. However, a spokeswoman for Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams said the office had been in touch with counties where the vote-flipping allegations occurred.

The election judges in those counties have assured Williams' office that there isn't a problem with the machines, she explained. It may be a fingernail or some other user error involving the voter hitting a button without realizing it. "However, this only serves to emphasize the importance of the summary screens, where a voter can make sure the correct ballots are cast," the spokeswoman said.

Despite official reassurances, the incidents set off alarm bells for a couple of e-voting critics. "You can only imagine what Election Day will be like if these problems were encountered with a relatively small number of voters at the polls," Avi Rubin, a professor of voting technology at Johns Hopkins University and a Maryland elections judge, said on his blog.

"While most of my comments about e-voting have to do with security threats that are invisible, I am also discouraged by the widespread technical problems that are not just noticeable, but screaming for attention," he wrote.

According to blogger Brad Friedman, who focuses on e-voting issues, not only do voters need to be extra careful, but they need to be extra vigilant. "I'm recommending that all voters, particularly voters who are forced by their county to vote on touch-screen systems, to bring video cameras with them when they vote to record the vote hopping," he said.

See our special report on E-voting 2006:

  •  E-voting state by state: What you need to know

  •  Major players: the vendors

  •  Laws, lingo and technologies

  •  Review: Hacking Democracy

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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