E-voting problems mount; poll closings delayed in some places

'Vote-flipping' reports grow; some voters in Denver told voting to take two hours

E-voting glitches in states across the U.S. slowed voting in the midterm elections today, and in numerous places, judges were asked to keep polls open later than normal to give people extra time to cast their ballots.

One e-voting critic working with the nonprofit group Common Cause said the biggest complaint coming in from voters on a national hot line was of "vote-flipping." He called the breadth of that problem a "national disgrace."

In Indiana, some polling places were ordered to remain open an extra two hours and 40 minutes after e-voting problems this morning delayed voting. In Colorado, state Democratic officials asked a judge this afternoon to allow polls in Denver to remain open two hours later than planned. That request was later turned down. And in at least two counties in Pennsylvania had polling places that were going to be kept open late.

Voters in areas in which problems arose often found themselves facing long lines, confused elections officials and poll workers struggling to get balky hardware working correctly.

In Colorado this afternoon, the Democratic Party asked the Denver District Court to allow polls to stay open until 9 p.m. local time in that city, according to party spokesman Brian Mason. He said the problems there involved e-polling books -- the devices that hold a database of registered voters.

In some locations, the presiding officials' computers were down, cutting off access to the e-polling books. "Many [voters] were turned away; some were given provisional ballots, but in some places, these ballots ran out," said Mason.

Although most of the problems were eventually addressed, the delays had a cascading effect that resulted in "huge lines" at polling places, he said. Voters in some locations had been told during the day to expect to wait two hours in line to vote, according to The Denver Post. The newspaper described "chaos" in some polling places and noted that election officials this afternoon called in all city employees with election experience so they could be sworn in as election officials on an emergency basis.

According to the newspaper, the request that polling places be kept open was denied this evening.

In Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, a judge ordered polling places throughout the county to remain open an hour later -- until 9 p.m., to ensure that residents could vote following earlier machine glitches, said Mel Newcomer, the county's solicitor. "No one was prevented from voting ... but there were some concerns that people might have left because of long lines" due to to the machine problems. "This just gives everyone the opportunity to vote."

Polling places were also going to remain open an hour later in Lebanon County, just north of Lancaster. Lebanon County Commissioners Chairman Bill Carpenter said the extension was ordered after problems this morning with all 240 e-voting machines in the county's 55 polling places. The problem, he said, was a programming error involving ballots inserted into the machines. Instead of taking individual ballots, the machines were only able to accept a master ballot to activate that machine for the next voter, he said.

Because each polling place only has one master ballot for several machines, that ballot has to be manually moved from machine to machine to activate it, he said. The county uses e-voting machines from Election Systems & Software Inc. in Omaha, Carpenter said.

Harry Van Sickle, commissioner of elections for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, said the Lancaster and Lebanon county problems were the most serious of the day. Several precincts north of Pittsburgh, in Monroeville, did have some difficulties with several machines for a short time this morning but went to backup ballots before resolving the problems, Van Sickle said. No major reports of problems were received from the state's largest city, Philadelphia.

"There's little things here and there, but overall, Lebanon County seems to have the most problems right now," he said. "It was human error."

In Cleveland, Alan Melamed, a spokesman for the Cuyahoga County Election Board, said 43 of the Ohio county's 573 polling places had machine problems affecting voters today, including eight where voters had to use paper ballots because hardware wasn't working. Three other polling places opened at 7 a.m., a half-hour late, he said.

David Stein, an attorney helping to monitor elections for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, said today that only minor problems were reported in Cleveland. Several voting machines didn't have security seals on them to indicate they were untampered with, so they were not used for voting, Stein said. Another machine wasn't properly printing its paper auditing trail, but it was determined that the paper roll had been loaded backward. Once that was corrected, the machine was fine, he said.

"It looks like the poll workers have been responding appropriately in taking these machines offline and taking corrective steps," Stein said.

A spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State's office could not be reached for comment.

Devin Willis Domond, an attorney with the People for the American Way Foundation, which is also monitoring today's elections in Cuyahoga County, said she has received reports of machines that aren't working and other machines that are tallying votes for candidates the voters did not select. And some machines did not show ballot questions, she said.

Polling places are allowing many voters to use paper ballots when machines fail, she said, but in some places, voters are being told to use provisional ballots or are being asked to come back later.

In a late afternoon conference call with reporters to offer an update on election problems around the country, Common Cause President and CEO Chellie Pingree said that the most common complaints to a toll-free voter hotline are reports of votes being switched to another candidate on an electronic ballot.

David L. Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and the founder of the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation, was on the Common Cause panel and said that the problem, called "vote flipping," has been reported all over the country.

"We know it's going to be a major deal," Dill said. If a voter notices the problem on the e-voting machine's review screen, they can try to go back and fix it, he said. Sometimes it takes multiple attempts to fix, according to reports. But if they don't notice it or try to go backward to fix it, their votes are improperly cast, he said.

"This problem, I think, is a national disgrace," Dill said. "There needs to be a serious independent investigation of this problem of vote flipping across the country."

Machines that use paper ballots that are then scanned with optical scanning readers are much more secure because voters have filled out the ballots themselves and the papers are available for any necessary recount, he said. There are film documentaries being made about the vote-flipping problems, some of which claim conspiracy theories, he said.

"I'm not sure I buy that, but we definitely need to get to the bottom of it," Dill said.

Elsewhere across the nation:

  • In Campbell County, Ky., an e-voting machine began smoking soon after polls opened at 6 a.m., said Les Fugate, spokesman for Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. "That one truly malfunctioned, and it just smoked and was pulled" out of service, he said. The eSlate touchscreen machine from Hart InterCivic Inc. in Austin had been used without incident in the May primary when it was brand new, he said. No one was injured and there was no actual fire, he said.

  • In Utah, according to The Salt Lake Tribune, election officials said a problem with voter cards used in the state's new voting machines affected 32 of 118 Utah County polling locations Monday morning. Robert Nelson was among those unable to cast votes using the new machines when the polls opened. After arriving at his Provo polling location at 7 a.m., Nelson said he spent an hour and a half hoping the machines would be fixed and then left. "The workers were earnestly trying to get the machines to work, but not a one in our precinct worked," Nelson said. "I work in Salt Lake City, so I couldn't wait for the machines to work."
  • New Jersey experienced scattered problems with e-voting machines through its 21 counties, where for the first time all voting was done by touchscreen, David Wald, communications director for New Jersey Attorney General Stuart Rabner, said shortly before polls closed at 8 p.m. Wald estimated that 60 machines out of "thousands" experienced problems.

    "All the problems were temporary, and they were easily remedied or repaired," he said. The machines in use are from Sequoia Pacific Systems Corp., he said.

  • In St. Louis County, Missourians for Honest Elections said it had learned of two incidents at a polling place where touch-screen machines incorrectly recorded voters' intended votes. Richard Bauer, an assistant director of the county's board of elections, said in a telephone interview that officials have not verified that vote flipping had occurred. The county has 444 voting locations using both optical scanners and iVotronic touch screens from Election Systems & Software.

Computerworld's Marc L. Songini, Todd R. Weiss, Angela Gunn, Matt Hamblen 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.

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