Report: Voting Tech Errors Could Be a Deal Breaker in Swing States

New report shows how all 50 states fare in technology preparedness if electronic voting machines malfunction on Election Day — a factor that could impact voting results in swing states.
by | July 27, 2012

By Sarah Rich, Government Technology

As with any technology, electronic voting machines run the risk of malfunctioning. However, with the upcoming November presidential election, states may want a plan B if a worst-case scenario occurs on Election Day, like if a machine fails to process votes — an issue that could be even more troubling in swing states.

History shows that technology doesn’t always cooperate on Election Day. In a 2010 nonpresidential election, North Carolina voters faced problems with electronic voting machines when Republican voters claimed they couldn’t select the Republican candidate while voting because the machines selected the Democratic candidate without the voters’ consent.

New York City faced trouble with voting machines that same year due to operational failures and a lack of proper equipment arriving on time at polling sites.

To find out how prepared states will be for possible voting system failures in the upcoming election, the Verified Voting Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization; Common Cause, another nonpartisan organization; and Rutgers Law School’s Constitutional Litigation Clinic surveyed each of the 50 states on series of criteria and released a report Wednesday, July 25, that outlines the findings.

The report, Counting Votes 2012: A State by State Look at Voting Technology Preparedness, ranked the states based on five evaluation topics. States were asked questions including: Has the state instituted a post-election audit that can determine whether the electronically reported outcomes are correct? Does the state have adequate contingency plans at each polling place in the event of machine failure?

According to the report, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin were ranked as best prepared to handle potential voting system malfunctions. Ranked least prepared were Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Overall, the states’ rankings placed them into one of four categories: good, generally good, needs improvement and inadequate.

Pamela Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation and one of the report’s authors, said states without verifiable paper records for votes cast in elections did not score as well in the survey as states that do keep paper records. For some states, like swing-state Pennsylvania, a combination exists since some counties in Pennsylvania keep verifiable voting records, while other counties in the state only use paperless electronic voting systems.

Smith said although some counties obtain paper records, if the state encountered problems during an election that would require voting record review, Pennsylvania would have no way to perform an accurate audit or recount since votes from the paperless machines could permanently be lost.

“They have no independent record of voter intent that they can compare with the software count,” she said.

Errors in the voting process for swing states could wrongfully change the outcome of which candidate is elected into office.

“If it’s an all-paperless machine state or partially paperless machine state, then you have this risk that comes along with being able to reconstruct what the outcome should have been in case something goes wrong,” Smith said.

Vote ‘Yes’ on Best Practices

So what are states to do if they didn’t fare well in the report’s rankings? Smith said while it may be difficult for states to make major changes before the November election, following Verified Voting’s list of best practices can help states be better prepared for other future elections, such as the 2016 presidential race.

Some of the best practices highlighted in the report include allowing emergency paper ballots to be issued in the event a voting machine encounters problems and to treat emergency ballots as regular ballots and not subject to additional scrutiny.

Some states have already adopted the best practices, however, Smith said the organization wants to create overall awareness that states should take more responsibility to ensure that all votes are accounted for during an election in case problems arise.

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