Election blues: The many ways for things to awry on Nov. 7

E-voting machines add lots of complexity to the voting process. Elderly poll workers are often flummoxed by the new job requirements, many voters may be turned away, recounts may be terribly delayed from counting paper audit receipts and of course there's the hacker worry.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at some of the possible problems that may crop up with e-voting machines on November 7 (registration required)

Among the major issues:

New equipment, elderly poll workers: Many machines bought under Helping America Vote were only bought this year, which means that officials may not have adequate time to work through issues and voters are using unfamiliar equipment. But, the Journal says, the problem isn't really the voters, it's elderly poll workers.

  • In 2004, Carteret County, N.C., poll workers didn't notice the warning lights indicating a touch screen's memory was full, for example, and lost 4,438 votes.
  • In Cuyahoga County this spring, poll workers loaded the paper incorrectly, and -- because the paper ballot is the official tally in Ohio -- lost 10% of the votes.
  • Tarrant County, Texas, recorded 100,000 extra votes in 2004 because of software programming errors, says New York University's Brennan Center, which studies voting issues.
  • In Florida's Palm Beach County in 2004, circuits became overloaded, backup batteries on the voting machines wore down and some votes were lost before anyone noticed, the Brennan Center says.

Voters who can't vote: You can't vote on the e-voting machines if they don't have the electronic swipes for voter cards. That's what happened in one county in Maryland - and experts say similar snafus could stop voters from even getting to the machines.

Many state voter lists are being used for the first time. When New York tested a preliminary list in 2004, it found data-entry mistakes in 20% of the registrations, says Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center. Most states plan to flag the name of a voter when databases don't agree -- when birth dates don't match, for example -- and let the voter correct the discrepancy at the polls or later, at the county elections office. But public-interest law groups say they will file lawsuits if lots of voters are kept from casting ballots by mistake.

Recount delays: Twenty-seven states now require paper audit trails to keep track of votes. But the paper receipt is printed on a paper spool that much be unwound and read by hand - potentially a very, very slow way to recount votes. In Ohio, recounting 300 spools took two days. A major recount could take weeks.

Hackers: The most publicized but perhaps smallest risk is that someone could hack into the machines and change results.

That scenario took on new seriousness last month when a Princeton University computer professor showed a congressional committee how he infected the memory on a Diebold touch screen -- causing votes to automatically switch from one candidate to another -- after opening the machine with a key he bought on the Internet.

Diebold has dismissed the Princeton demonstration, saying it was on an early model touch screen with old software and that it ignored "normal security procedures." But other computer scientists and security experts have criticized Diebold for denying them access to its software for testing and for dismissing the possibility of a "rogue" election worker tampering with a touch-screen's software.

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