Vote-flipping plagues e-voting

During Tuesday’s midterm elections in the U.S., reports emerged from across the nation about a problem called “vote-flipping,” where a voter selected a candidate on e-voting hardware — and the machine counted the vote for an opposing candidate.

The problem has been reported in U.S. elections since 2004 as more states move to e-voting machines that are supposed to make the vote counting process more accurate. Instead, for many Americans, the process has led to more questions than answers, and suspicions that their votes aren’t being counted correctly.

Stanford University computer science professor David L. Dill, who founded the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation and, has been looking at vote flipping and yesterday called for investigations to stop the problem.

“People have been way too quick to diagnose the problem,” Dill said. Some who have not examined the issue closely quickly call it a touchscreen calibration problem, others point to different causes. “It could be a calibration problem with the touchscreens, but I’m not sure that anyone really knows yet because no one’s looked at it. My answer as a computer scientist is that I want facts … and all I’ve heard for two years is speculation.”

Dill said he’s not convinced of one theory — that the problem is a conspiracy to defraud voters of their votes and give the election to the opposition. Once a voter makes his or her selections on a machine, a review screen shows them for whom their votes will be tallied, which the voter can confirm or at least review. That ability to review the vote before it is ultimately cast, he said, makes it less likely that fraud is involved.

“It seems to me if you were trying to commit fraud, you wouldn’t show [the ballot] to the voter,” he said.

One of the possible causes of vote flipping may be voters who place their hands on the side of a machine as they vote, perhaps accidentally touching it with their thumb and erroneously making a selection, he said. In other cases, some e-voting machines use a thumb-operated wheel to advance the electronic screens and when it is turned, it highlights a candidate in the next race on the ballot — possibly giving a voter the impression that an erroneous choice has been made for them, he said.

The way to figure it out, he said, is to bring together a panel of experts to investigate the issue, confirm it, find ways to fix it and then get any fixes out to voting officials, Dill said. Until then, election officials and watchdog groups across the country will continue to hear reports of vote flipping, he said.

“We know it’s going to be a major deal,” Dill said. If a voter notices the problem on an e-voting machine’s review screen, they can try to go back and fix it, he said. Sometimes it takes multiple attempts to correct, 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 … across the country.”

Machines that use paper ballots scanned with optical scanning readers are more secure because voters have filled out the ballots themselves and a paper trail is available for any necessary recounts, he said. Although film documentaries are being made about the vote flipping problems — and potential conspiracy theories — “I’m not sure I buy that,” Dill said. “But we definitely need to get to the bottom of it.”

In his home precinct in San Mateo County, Calif., Dill said he voted on an optical scanning machine that automatically “read” the paper ballot he filled out with a pen. He wanted to try one of the new Hart InterCivic eSlate electronic machines the county bought, but the only one in his polling place was in use, he said. The eSlates used by San Mateo County include a paper record of the voter’s choices that is printed out, he said.

The machines chosen by his county are not his preference, however. “I have long advocated precinct-scan optical scanning machines” using ballots filled out by voters and then read by scanners.

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