Thursday, November 11, 2004
Back up! We need back up!
In my two recent columns about the reliability of electronic voting machines, I questioned the prudence of leaving such an important job of counting votes to a computer with no human backup.
My argument has been that touch-screen voting machines are a good step forward, but they might not yet be ready for implementation because of potentially faulty hardware or software that could lose or misplace votes, and because there is no paper printout for the voter to use to verify that the computer correctly recorded his choices.
Now, after the November presidential election where more than 50 million people across the country used electronic voting machines, let’s take a look at some of the problems that have emerged, including some you probably haven’t heard about:
The New Bern, N.C., Sun Journal (Nov. 10) reported that an election night software problem caused a double count of votes from nine precincts. The glitch occurred as absentee ballot totals were being entered. The voting machine equipment downloaded voting information from different precincts, and as the absentee ballots were added, the precinct totals were added in a second time.
An override feature in the software is supposed to prevent double counting, but did not function correctly, according to the director of the Board of Elections. The double counts were discovered by the newspaper the next day.
The Associated Press (Nov. 5) reported that in North Carolina's Carteret County, confusion over the storage capacity of e-voting machines caused the county to lose 4,530 votes. The manufacturer told election officials that the model of machine they were using was supposed to count up to 10,500 votes, but it only held 3,005 votes, so every vote over 3,005 wasn’t tabulated. The 4,530 lost votes can’t be recovered.
According to the Associated Press (Nov. 5), in Franklin County, Ohio, a glitch gave President Bush an extra 3,893 votes, more than six times the 638 votes actually cast in the precinct in question. It happened because the results cartridge of an older-generation machine was plugged in to the counter of a new machine and reported the extra votes for Bush.
In a report from the Youngstown, Ohio Vindicator (Nov. 3), the chairman of the Mahoning County Board of Elections said that 20 to 30 machines needed to be recalibrated during the voting process because some votes for a candidate were being counted for that candidate's opponent.
The Vindicator also reported that Mercer County's (Pennsylvania) director of elections and director of technology said a computer software problem (not voters incorrectly touching the screen) caused touch-screen voting machines to malfunction in about a dozen precincts. They said repeated calls to the manufacturer failed to resolve the problem. On some machines, voters were required to vote backwards, starting on the last page of the touch-screen system and working back to the front page, in order for their votes to be counted.
And finally, here at home in the Roanoke and New River valleys, The Roanoke Times reported few problems -- the most serious were due to voter error. Some ballots were voided because voters left machines before pushing a flashing red button to record their votes.
As I have written in previous columns, the solution to potential hardware and software glitches is that every voting machine produce a paper printout of the voter’s selections. This so that the voter can hold a paper record to verify that the machine recorded his votes correctly before the printout was deposited into a secure ballot box.
Nevada is the first state in the nation using electronic machines with voter-verified paper records. Nevada elections officials said the printers and the process worked well in last week’s elections. The Secretary of State’s office will audit random machines against their paper trails to test their accuracy. Many are hoping that Nevada’s success will lead to other states using the backup printers.
The real problem, though, is not these few glitches in three states that made news, but glitches that could actually happen inside the voting machine computer that no one would ever know about. The incidents that were reported demonstrate that the machines are fallible, contrary to the promises of many elections officials and electronic voting machine manufacturers across the country.
Do these visible flaws only show the surface of the problem, hiding a much larger iceberg below?
Did most of the electronic voting machines work the way they were supposed to in this last election?
Or were there hardware or software problems that caused votes to be lost, miscounted, or given to the opposing candidate?
Without a paper trail to audit the machines’ accuracy, how will we ever know?