Politics

Error Trail

Fancy new voting machines work pretty well if everyone knows how to use them. In much of the country, that's still a big if.
by | October 2006

By now, the horror stories about electronic voting machines have become pretty familiar. Hackers break in, there's often no paper trail to verify results and software glitches are common. But there's one problem with the machines that is frequently ignored: They have to be used by people.

Most of the time, it isn't confused voters who create the problem-- it's poll workers. In the primary this May in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, widespread difficulty with machines, power outlets and absentee ballots was almost entirely the result of inadequate worker training. The same systems that led to chaos in Cuyahoga performed without a hitch in Utah two months later, where the staff was ready.

Missouri's primary voting in August was plagued by vote-count delays because election officials weren't familiar with the electronic equipment. "Some of the poll workers didn't know how to properly shut down the machines and bring in the results," says David Kimball, a voting expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

And last month, judges in Maryland ordered that polls remain open an extra hour in the state's two largest jurisdictions because cards needed to work the electronic machines had been left back at the warehouse--or because, in some cases, precinct workers had simply failed to show up.

In some jurisdictions, there aren't even firm procedures for poll workers to follow. "When you don't have clear, definitive rules about setting up or shutting down these machines, that's where we see the most problems," says Thad Hall, a University of Utah political scientist.

Some states and counties are trying to correct these problems. California and Ohio now grant paid leave to state employees who spend Election Day working at polling places. A number of localities have followed suit. In Guilford County, North Carolina, poll workers who complete a certification course at a local college get the incentive of extra pay.

Even if poll workers get more help, voters remain part of the problem. Some machines present them with too much information, particularly in jurisdictions that require "full-face" ballots, on which all candidates and measures are listed together, in imitation of old lever machines.

Still, most people seem to like electronic voting and do quite well with it, especially after their first try. "One of the things you find out is that everyone thinks their mother can't do it," says Hall, who is writing a book on the subject. "The 20-year-olds think their 40- year-old moms can't do it, and 70-year-olds think their 90-year-old moms can't do it." Most of the time, he insists, they're wrong.

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