Scattered e-voting problems reported

But in many places with past snafus, voting seems to be going smoothly

U.S. citizens went to the polls today amid scattered reports of e-voting problems in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Indiana that caused long lines to form at some polling places and delayed voting in a handful of areas.

In other places such as Maryland and North Carolina, where past e-voting snafus had occurred, voting seemed to be going more smoothly, according to elections officials.

"We've had a remarkably smooth start to the elections this morning in Maryland," said Linda Lamone, administrator for that state's board of elections. She cited good voter turnout and "exceptionally smooth performance from the voting machines and the election judges."

The state runs Diebold Election Systems' TS machines, as well as electronic polling books from Diebold that contain a database of eligible voters.

Elections officials in Montgomery County, Md., and elsewhere complained of problems with the polling books during the September primary. Diebold said it had remedied the problem.

It was in Montgomery County where primary balloting was delayed because memory cards for the Diebold TS machines hadn't been delivered. Today, things were running more smoothly, according to one official.

"Everything is going great," said Marjorie Roher, administrative specialist for the Montgomery County Board of Elections. "All polling places opened on time this morning, and while we do have some long lines due to turnout, everything seems to be functioning properly. There were maybe a dozen cases of power cords not being included in the supply bag; however, the poll books operate with a battery backup and were able to work without the cord until it arrived within 60 minutes.

"We are very pleased," Roher said.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, however, problems cropped up early in the day. In Lancaster County, Pa., 67 out of 232 Hart InterCivic Inc. eScan voting machines did not work properly when the scanning devices on the machines would not scan paper ballots as they were fed in, said Mary Stehman, chief clerk and registrar for the Lancaster County Election Board.

The 67 machines "have a small problem," Stehman said. One problem was that elections officials at the polling places did not tear off the ballot stub at the end of the paper ballot, she said, "so the machine jammed." The ballot stub is a receipt given to the voter to show that he has voted. If the stub isn't removed before the ballot is fed in to the scanner, it can disable the machine, she said.

The problem has occurred despite previous training by the county to teach poll workers how to use the new machines, Stehman said.

"I'm not sure [what happened]. It's human nature, I think. We did the training," but people can make mistakes, Stehman said.

Stehman said the county election board has "crews on the road" going to polling places to help get the machines back up and running. "We're calling all the judges of elections to [inform] them that everyone can still vote on a paper ballot and put it in the emergency slot" on the eScan machines.

That emergency slot stores completed ballots in a locked area until it is time to count votes. Each paper ballot will be hand-counted if the scanners are not repaired by later today.

"People can vote, and their votes will be counted," Stehman said.

Lancaster County, with 299,488 registered voters, replaced all of its old lever-operated machines and moved to eScan and eSlate devices for this year's May primary in all of the county's polling places.

Karen Wenger, the county clerk in Delaware County, Ind., which includes the city of Munice, said the cards needed to activate voting machines for each voter were not progammed correctly by the vendor, MicroVote General Corp. Once a MicroVote technician was on the phone talking to the poll workers, they were able to reprogram the machines so the cards could work, Wenger said.

She said that the problem didn't show up in the county's public test of the election, and MicroVote has taken full responsiblity for today's delays. It was an error on the company's part when the cards were programmed, she said.

As a backup, the county had paper ballots in each polling place that voters could use in case of e-voting problems. The county also extended its polling hours until 8:40 p.m., she said.

In Florida, several counties reported problems, with five precincts in three counties -- Polk, Broward and Lee -- suffering "minor issues," according to a spokeswoman from Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb's office. These were caused by local power outages and the absence of poll workers. The problems were quickly remedied, and the precincts were up and running soon after 7 a.m.

In general, she said after speaking with officials in all 67 counties this morning, "all is going well." The spokeswoman noted that during early voting, 800,000 people cast ballots, "and we expect much of the same today."

Three of the precincts affected by problems were in Broward County, which uses Election Systems & Software Inc. iVotronic voting devices, she explained.

"With approximately 5,000 machines deployed, there are always a few that do not start up properly," said Peter Corwin, assistant to the Broward County administrator. A percentage of these machine problems are usually caused by human error and can be corrected with a call to technical support, he said.

Corwin also said the call volume to technical support workers appeared to be lower than it had been during the primary election.

Last week, during early voting, voters in both Broward and nearby Miami-Dade County had complained of vote flipping -- that is, the candidate being chosen by a voter was not displayed on the voting screen. Officials assured the public that no votes were lost.

In nearby Leon County, elections supervisor Ion Sancho said things were going smoothly, although the voter turnout had been low due to poor weather. The county runs a mix of Diebold AccuVote OS optical scan and AccuVote TSX touch-screen systems.

In Ohio, Carrie Reber, director of product public relations at Quest Software Inc. in Dublin, Ohio, said that at her polling place in Franklin County, two of the five touch-screen e-voting machines weren't working at 7:45 a.m. One machine had a paper jam and was awaiting a repair technician; the other machine had an unknown technical problem that disabled it five minutes after polls opened, she said.

About 20 people were in line to vote when she was at the polls.

Thomas Siu, chief security officer for Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said he had no problems voting today at his polling place in Lake County. He said he used an e-voting machine that produced a paper record of his votes, adding that the equipment appeared to work properly. Just in case, Siu took a photograph of his on-screen election ballot using a digital camera to keep a record of his votes.

In a conference call with reporters at 10 a.m. EST, Chellie Pingree, president and CEO of Common Cause, said that about 9,500 telephone calls had come in so far to a toll-free hotline from voters with concerns about the elections.

About 1,300 of those calls came in from Pennsylvania -- the largest number from any state at that point, she said. Other states with large numbers of calls included California, New York and Ohio -- all of which have what are expected to be tight races.

Most calls involved voters whose names weren't on registration lists, questions about the type of ID voters would need and problems with voting machines and polling places, Pingree said. The problems with e-voting hardware included votes that were switched by the machines to candidates voters had not chosen, she said.

"Many of our calls are from people who just don't trust their votes anymore," Pingree said. "We're hoping that this is a signal to many people that it's time to fix these problems." Common Cause is a Washington-based, nonprofit, nonpartisan, open government advocacy group.

Elsewhere, scattered reports of problems were passed on to elections officials. The North Carolina State Board of Elections received a complaint from one elderly voter in a Mecklenburg County polling place that she could not find a congressional race on her ES&S Votronic touch-screen voting machine at about 9 a.m. today, said Don Wright, general counsel for the board.

On investigation, however, officials found the same machine had performed well with no complaints from hundreds of other voters. "It was just one elderly lady and there is no machine programming error or you'd see there is no race on other machines," Wright said in a phone interview. "As long as human beings vote and as long as human beings serve as poll workers, you'll have problems."

IVotronic machines are used in a majority of polling places in 24 of 100 counties in North Carolina, which as 2,800 voting precincts statewide, Wright said. The other counties use the ES&S M100 optical scanning machine, he said.

Joyce McCloy, coordinator for North Carolina Coalition for Verifiable Voting, a watchdog group, said the report Wright confirmed was the only e-voting irregularity she had come across. "With new electronic voting machines, voters can obviously get nervous," she said.

Because of concerns about a repeat of problems in 2004, when several thousand votes in one part of the state were lost, McCloy's group pledged to be vigilant. "We're as busy as a one-armed man in a paper hanging contest," she said.

Tova Andrea Wang, a democracy fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research institution, said that none of the problems seen so far was unexpected. There have always been elections problems dating back to the turn of the century, when mechanical machines came into use because paper ballots could be easily manipulated and changed.

"There's no question that we're in a transition period" to e-voting machines, said Wang, who took part in the Common Cause discussion of voting issues. Whether the system is experiencing growing pains or faces a long-term problem remains to be seen.

The more worrisome issue with electronic machines is the scale with which votes might be vulnerable to manipulation, Pingree said. "Whether it's a conspiracy theory or if it's really going on is the real question," she said.

Melanie Cambell, executive director and CEO of National Coalition on Black Civic Participation Inc. in Washington, doesn't think the old mechanical machine voting was necessarily better. But newer e-voting machines bring new worries, she said.

"In the African-American community, there is a high level of mistrust in these machines," said Campbell, who was also part of the Common Cause voting discussion. "People want assurances that their votes are being counted properly. They want a paper trail."

The biggest concern, she said, is that if people stop trusting the election process here, they will stop voting.

"If you don't have their confidence, they will opt out of the system," Campbell said. Millions of citizens already don't vote, and suspicion would only worsen that problem, she said. "The more that sentiment [spreads], the more it does to pull people away from the process."

Computerworld's Marc L. Songini, Todd R. Weiss, Matt Hamblen, Linda Rosencrance and Ken Mingis contributed to this report.

See more Election 2006 coverage:

  •  Watchdog groups urge voters to report e-vote problems

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

  •  Database glitches could turn away voters

  •  Laws, lingo and technologies

  •  Major players: the vendors

  •  Voter-targeting technologies

  •  Review: Hacking Democracy

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
Shop Tech Products at Amazon