Reliability a tossup in evoting exit poll

The jury is still out on the performance of e-voting systems throughout the country in this week’s midterm elections, according to officials and technical experts interviewed during and after the vote.

The prospect of widespread use of DREs, or direct recording electronic machines, most of which are touch-screen systems, had caused considerable concern about the possibility of fraud, hacking or technical glitches.

But in the days after Tuesday’s elections, it remained unclear to what degree those fears may have been realized.

There were scattered reports of technical or procedural problems that led to difficulties with either registration or voting in Colorado, Texas, Florida, Utah and Pennsylvania.

For example, some early voters in Florida’s Broward and Miami-Dade counties reported difficulties getting the touch-screen systems to display the candidates they voted for. A spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb downplayed the reports of machine malfunctions, which she said were isolated and caused mostly by poll worker errors.

Holly Jacobson, co-director of Voter Action, a nonprofit election watchdog organization in Berkeley, Calif., contended that the early reports of few problems with e-voting machines were misleading.

“Although I heard reports that for the most part things went smoothly, that doesn’t seem to be the experience of many voters — particularly in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, San Diego County and elsewhere,” she said.

“Reading through these reports really does give a tragic view of the voting experience for many,” Jacobson added.

For instance, in Ohio, 43 of Cuyahoga County’s 573 polling places had machine problems that affected voters this week, according to Alan Melamed, a spokesman for the county’s board of elections. At eight of those sites, voters had to use paper ballots because of faulty hardware.

‘No big deal’

Joseph Demma, chief of staff for Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Hebert, whose office oversees elections in that state, said voters in Utah County encountered some problems with Diebold Election Systems TSX touch-screen systems during this week’s election.

He said that delays in preparing encoders, which program specific ballots, caused some machines to be unavailable at the start of voting. However, Demma said it was “no big deal,” noting that people who couldn’t vote on those machines used paper ballots until the machines were up and running.

Through late this week, there were no reports of significant meltdowns or hacks that could tip a major race, according to officials and e-voting critics who closely watched races in several states.

Until all results are reported and certified, and the performance of e-voting hardware is more completely assessed, it’s difficult to judge how well the DRE touch-screen systems held up, said several observers. Election Data Services Inc., a consulting firm in Washington, projected that as many as 38 percent of registered voters across the country could use the touch-screen systems to vote in the election.

“What we do know from [the election] is that the rollout of the new systems represented an enormous change for many officials and poll workers — in many cases, in a last-minute rush,” said Justin Levitt, counsel for the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Levitt said that while the number of affected machines appears to be low nationwide, the number of problems is still higher than it should be. “Many precincts were simply unprepared to deal with servicing the number of voters arriving at the polls,” he said. “The user experience suffered as a result.”

Positive perspective
Despite a few glitches, top election officials in several states, including Texas, Maryland, Florida, Utah and Alaska, said after the election that the electronic voting gear in their states worked well.

“Overall, [the e-voting process] was a huge success in Utah,” said Demma. “We are extremely pleased.”

In the days after the election, vendors of e-voting machines were upbeat about the performance of their products, and they maintained that voters are getting used to the technology.

“Our customers did a great job,” said a spokeswoman for Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. The Oakland, Calif.-based maker of optical-scan and DRE machines claims a nationwide installed base of some 100,000 units. “As we predicted, things went smoother this November than they did in the primaries [earlier] this year because the officials, poll workers and voters have had more exposure to them,” she said.

DRE critic and blogger Brad Friedman, founder of voter activist group Velvet Revolution, said that e-voting machine breakdowns forced the use of paper ballots in many locations across the U.S.

For instance, in Denver, problems with homegrown e-poll books, which control access to machines, forced voters to use paper ballots fora period in the morning. The problem prompted the Colorado Democratic Party to unsuccessfully seek a two-hour extension to polling hours in Denver District Court.

Meanwhile, Avi Rubin, an elections judge in Maryland’s Baltimore County and a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, said the performance of e-voting technology in his precinct had improved considerably since the September primary.

In this week’s election, Rubin said, there was only one serious glitch in a single Diebold TS touch-screen voting machine in his precinct. In a blog on his Web site, Rubin noted that the e-poll books used with the Diebold machines by the precinct, which had caused considerable problems during the primary, “worked flawlessly” in the general election.

Nevertheless, he said he remains opposed to the use of DREs because he believes that they still lack adequate security measures.

Despite the apparent lack of major problems this week, e-voting critics urged that the technology continue to be closely monitored.

This year’s scrutiny by media outlets, which detailed potential problems, may have headed off hacking attempts that could have affected the results of a major race, said Bruce Funk, the former elections director for Emery County, Utah, and an outspoken critic of touch-screen systems.

Funk called for improved audits of election results and said that paper ballots should be issued to people who request them.

“It’s [the] 2008 [election] that worries me the most,” he said, adding that the apparent lack of problems in this week’s election “only lessens the public concern over the real security problem that still exists.”

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