E-voting system failures lead to call for public clearinghouse

National repository needed to keep track of voting system malfunctions, report concludes

A new report calls for creating a national, searchable database of electronic voting systems' defects and vulnerabilities.

Currently, there is no central database that election officials can search for information about system malfunctions, nor is collection of data on system malfunctions required. In addition, no government agency investigates such failures and alerts the public, according to a report published Sept. 13 by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Author Lawrence Norden, senior counsel to the Brennan Center, reviewed hundreds of reports of problems with electronic voting systems during the last eight years, including 14 case studies.


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He noted that election officials rely on vendors to keep them aware of potential problems with voting machines, which is often done voluntarily. Voting system failures in one jurisdiction tend to be repeated in other areas, resulting in reduced public confidence and lost votes, Norden added.

“We need a new and better regulatory structure to ensure that voting system defects are caught early, officials in affected jurisdictions are notified immediately, and action is taken to make certain that they will be corrected for all such systems, wherever they are used in the United States,” Norden wrote.

The new regulatory system must have a national database, accessible by election officials and others, that identifies voting system malfunctions reported by vendors or election officials. Vendors should be required to report to the system.

Although the 2-year-old Election Assistance Commission tests new voting systems and has “made great strides” in doing so,” it needs additional authority to fully address the problem of unreported malfunctions with the systems, Norden wrote.

“Given the nature and importance of voting systems to our democracy, we need a new regulatory structure to ensure that voting system defects are caught early, disclosed immediately, and corrected quickly and comprehensively. Accordingly, this new regulatory system must center around a mandatory national clearinghouse, administered by a federal agency empowered to investigate violations and enforce the law,” Norden wrote.

Norden provides more than a dozen examples of how voting machine malfunctions caused significant problems during elections, including:

  • In March 2009 in a special election for the Fairfax County, Va., Board of Supervisors, officials noted that the combined totals on the machines recorded 364 more votes than there were people signed in to vote that day. The numbers were reconciled by hand.
  • In a District of Columbia primary election in 2008, voter totals on one of the optical scanners were incorrect, with reported turnout nearly twice that of the registered population of the precinct. The source of the malfunction was never conclusively identified.
  • In Orange County, Fla.,in 2007, optical scanners failed to read many of the absentee ballots, resulting in significant errors. Upon further investigation, it was found that the same problem with optical scanners had occurred in Napa Valley, Calif., in 2004.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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