E-voting hiccups didn't sway elections

Electronic voting systems, which have attracted widespread criticism and suspicion, appeared to generally perform well in yesterday’s elections, according to firsthand accounts by specialists who checked polls in several states.

Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of voters did contact voter assistance hotlines to report problems, but the problems they encountered appeared to stem overwhelmingly from difficulties with training and procedures rather than systems security or other technology flaws, observers said.

Activist organizations gathered under the umbrella of the Election Protection Commission, a coalition that includes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and united to collect and publicize voting technlogy complaints. EFF said it had received more than 17,000 calls to its election protection hotline (66-OUR-VOTE) stemming not only from voter confusion but also from poor election worker training and faulty equipment.

"If election officials insist on depending on this unreliable technology, they should be prepared to react appropriately when things go wrong," EFF legal director Cindy Cohn said in a statement. "Voters should not have to bear the brunt of this poor planning.”

Despite the various reports of voting problems and delays in several states, no reports surfaced of any elections being substantially affected by the difficulties.

Wendy Weiser, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center, yesterday worked in a call center fielding complaints from voters in about a dozen states. “A lot of the problems we saw were administrative problems, resulting from insufficient planning, preparation and training,” Weiser said.

Weiser cited voter confusion as a factor with technology and procedures as a factor that generated calls. She said that a clearer picture of the role of the electronic voting systems themselves in the process would emerge as evaluations proceed over coming weeks.

Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission created by Congress to upgrade voting technology, yesterday visited polling places in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. He started in Cincinnati, near a corner where the three states meet, and visited Kentucky’s capital, Frankfort, as well as Hamilton County, Ind.

“Poll workers and voters liked the equipment,” DeGregorio said. ”It was a combination of optical scan and touch-screen machines. Some [voters and polling place workers] said they could have used more training,” DeGregorio said. “Sometimes they had problems with having failed to set time back on some of the machines [because of daylight savings time], as well as problems with printers.”

However, technicians on hand quickly overcame the printer glitch that DeGregorio saw. He also reported that in other parts of Indiana, faulty voting machine programming, “that should have been taken care of months ago,” stalled voting.

But DeGregorio’s main concern is the need to educate a large new cadre of polling place workers, because he forecast that some 25 percent of the existing election work force would move on over the next two years. “We need to train a whole new generation of poll workers who are familiar with the new technology,” DeGregorio said.

Another perspective on the election came from Patty Davis, election director for Talbot County, Md.

“Our voting system worked great,” Davis said. “We have the Diebold touch screen [voting unit] and electronic poll [books].” The Diebold equipment has attracted some of the most jaundiced criticism in the entire field of electronic voting, with activists charging that security flaws, missing source code and other issues have exposed it to easy and possibly deliberate abuse. Diebold Election Systems Inc. is located in North Canton, Ohio.

The Maryland electronic voting systems became an issue in the state’s gubernatorial election, as some candidates urged voters to shun the systems and vote by absentee ballot.

“Our voters and our judges think the system worked great,” Davis emphasized. “There were no problems with the system, just long lines,” she said.

Talbot County has about 26,710 voters, who go to 11 polling places covering 16 precincts, Davis said. Across the county, some 62 percent of the voters went to the polls—a relatively high figure for a midterm election, Davis noted. The fact that the poll included an election for governor as well as matters of widespread local concern bolstered the turnout, she said.

Davis dismissed the notion that hackers could physically open the voting machines, saying such activity would be easily visible to poll workers. She also dismissed the possibility that a hacker could tamper with the tally server that adds up votes from various polling stations, noting that anybody who would try to do so would have to get physically past her desk and that the tally server is not connected to the Internet.

Davis said Talbot County has fielded Diebold equipment since 2002, and the county’s polling place officials and voters have become increasing adept at its use.

Kim Brace, elections consultant with Election Data Services Inc. of Washington, monitored technology problems nationwide yesterday on behalf of the NBC broadcasting network. His company has provided election technology consulting services to government agencies for some 30 years, he said.

As far as the performance of election technology yesterday, Brace said, “I think that probably the grade might be a B minus. There is room for improvement, as my teacher used to say. There are issues that need to be resolved in getting the processes down more smoothly. The history of election technology shows that the first election with the new equipment is the most harried one, and the one most likely to cause you problems.”

Brace said he had checked into polling place problems yesterday in various places, especially Denver. In the Mile High City, problems with the poll books that record the eligible voters let to voting delays, Brace found. His investigation showed that the poll book problems stemmed from balky telecommunications between the poll books at the voting sites and the county’s central mainframe.

Brace noted that he found in his process of tracking down the source of complaints about election technology, “In many cases what the voters were saying did not square with what was going on in the community.” Brace suggested that the public’s general unfamiliarity with electronic voting systems could play a part in the confusion.

Michelle Shafer, vice president for communications and external affairs of Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., said, “The elections went very well yesterday. The equipment performed very well throughout the 16 states and the District of Columbia where we do business.”

Shafer added that “things overall went much more smoothly in this election compared to the 2006 primary elections because many [election organizations] were using the equipment for the second and third time. They were able to get more exposure, training and experience with the technology. You will see things continue to improve.” Her company is based in Oakland, Calif.

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