Election 2006: Watchdog groups urge voters to report e-vote problems

Balloting in Ohio, Florida, Tennessee and Pennsylvania is being watched closely

With many races in today's midterm elections in the U.S. relying on electronic voting machines, elections officials and a plethora of watchdogs groups are keeping an eye on balloting to see how the various e-voting systems work.

Some 66 million voters, or about 38% nationwide, will be able to use e-voting machines in today's elections, according to Election Data Services Inc., a Washington-based consulting firm.

Matt Zimmerman, a staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit privacy and digital rights group, said that the states being closely watched today for potential problems include Ohio, Florida, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

"There's certain places [being watched] like Ohio and Florida -- just because they're Ohio and Florida and they're going through procedural problems that we've seen" in the past, Zimmerman said. "Over the last few election cycles, these states have had issues."

In Tennessee, many counties have bought new electronic voting machines that will be used for the first time, leading to concerns about potential problems with the rollouts, he said. In Pennsylvania, there are concerns about whether e-voting machine vendors made needed changes to their equipment -- and whether the machines will work as expected, Zimmerman said.

"Using past elections as a guide is tough because so many more jurisdictions are using these machines for the first time," he said.

If voters have problems casting ballots anywhere in the nation, they can call a toll-free Election Protection Coalition hot line set up to report issues: (866) OUR-VOTE, or (866) 687-8683. EFF is a member of the coalition, which includes the People for the American Way Foundation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Problems could include hardware that doesn't properly record or cast ballots, machines that switch votes to other candidates on their electronic summary screens, or ones that reboot or crash as people attempt to vote. "Don't let concerns about the machines keep you from the polls," Zimmerman said. "If you have concerns [or problems voting}, the only way they're going to be fixed is if you let us know about it."

Courtenay Strickland Bhatia, president of San Francisco-based VerifiedVoting.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan lobbying group that supports reliable and publicly verifiable elections, said problems are likely to affect states with close races, histories of past election problems and where lots of new e-voting machines are being introduced.

"This is the largest shift in voting equipment in our nation's history," Bhatia said. That means balloting will require stepped-up efforts by local elections officials, poll workers and voters to make sure they go smoothly. "We need citizens watching," she said.

A key problem, Bhatia said, is that because many areas are using e-voting machines that lack a paper trail, problems that are reported might not be properly checked out. That lack of records means "that the problems we see on Election Day will be the tip of the iceberg," she said.

Since e-voting machines may not even indicate that a problem has occurred, there's no way to ensure that a voter's intentions are carried out, Bhatia said. "We need a safety net in case of fraud or machine failure," she added. "A routine manual audit and voter-verified paper records provide that safety net."

A voter-verified paper trail is a printout that the voter can see before he has his votes tallied. That paper trail includes the names of the candidates voted for, and that paper is then saved as part of the voting record in case it is needed for recounts or reviews.

"The voter-verifiable step in the process is the crucial point," Bhatia said. "It's the check and balance."

Harry Van Sickle, the commissioner of elections for Pennsylvania's 67 counties, said county elections officials across the state "have a quiet confidence" about how the election will go today using e-voting machines. "In talking with most of the election directors, we find out they feel good about [the equipment]," he said. Fifty-four of the counties are using touch-screen machines, while 13 use optical scanners.

"We are basically ready for the election," Van Sickle said yesterday. "It seems to be going pretty well."

Sharon Lettman, vice president for external affairs for the Washington-based People for the American Way Foundation, said problems are already showing up as voters cast ballots in early-voting programs. Some problems are related to machines that are incorrectly switching votes, giving them to the wrong candidates, she said.

Her advice for voters having problems is simple. "Most importantly, don't take no for an answer," Lettman said.

Ask for help immediately before finalizing your votes if there is a problem, or call the hot line to report problems or get assistance, she advised.

See more Election 2006 coverage:

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

  •  Database glitches could turn away voters

  •  E-voting laws, lingo and technologies

  •  Voter-targeting technologies

  •  Major players: the vendors

  •  Review: Hacking Democracy

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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