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E-voting glitches disrupt election day

From Colorado to Florida, electronic voting machines--and human error--are blamed for glitches that caused plenty of irritation.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
Reports of glitches in electronic voting machines on Tuesday marred a closely watched election that could shift the balance of power in the U.S. Congress.

From Colorado to Florida, glitches blamed on human error or computer malfunctions yielded long lines and led some precincts to resort temporarily to paper ballots.

About 39 percent of voters were expected to cast their ballots on Tuesday using . Another 49 percent of voters are expected to use optical-scan voting equipment, which uses computers to tabulate paper ballots in a manner similar to standardized tests.

Denver-area polling places experienced widespread problems when turning on voting machines, which a representative for the Colorado secretary of state blamed on human error.

"Once those issues got resolved about how those election judges were booting up the machines, everything seemed to have calmed down," said Dana Williams, a Colorado public information officer.

But The Denver Post reported that software crashes and overloaded servers also were to blame for the extraordinary lines, which resulted in police being called out in at least one case to maintain order.

"I'm seeing a broader range of problems than I expected," said Matt Zimmerman, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has been taking calls from concerned voters through the Election Protection Coalition, a group that aims to protect voter rights. "I didn't expect to see as many polling places that weren't able to start up because of various machine-related problems."

It wasn't immediately clear, though, how widespread the problems were and whether they would be sufficient to cause the results of individual elections to be called into question--or, more broadly, spur election officials to rethink the way they use e-voting machines.

Computer scientists and advocacy groups have long warned of the perils of electronic voting machines, especially ones without a paper trail for audit purposes. Without a paper trail, vote totals could be quietly altered, either through a programmer's error or through malice, with little hope of detecting the problem. Few machines currently have them.


Some counties have extended their polling place hours to make up for late openings caused by voting machine glitches.

In Delaware County, Indiana, a circuit judge ruled that the polls would be open until 8:40 p.m. after touch-screen machines failed to fire up in all of the county's 75 precincts on Tuesday morning.

The problem was not mechanical--it was human, said Mandy Miller, director of operations for MicroVote, the company that makes those machines. Election officials apparently neglected to ensure that the vote cards that poll judges insert into machines before each voter casts his ballot had been properly programmed.

"It was just one of those simple things that they forgot to do, and unfortunately we caught it on election morning," Miller said in a telephone interview, adding that the company plans to give clearer instructions to election officials in future races.

Two precincts in Broward County, Fla., also delayed opening their polls because of a similar mix-up, said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the Florida Department of State. Poll workers attempted to start machines using cards that had been assigned to the wrong precinct, resulting in about two hours of delays.

Unlike in other states, Broward did not opt to extend its polling place hours to make up for the delays. Ivey said that decision rests with the governor. "I don't think you would see a change in any of the outcomes of the races by remaining open for an additional two hours," he added.


Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Even some political insiders reportedly were snagged by voting glitches: Incumbent Rep. Jean Schmidt, an Ohio Republican, found out that her paper ballot was rejected by a voting machine. Chelsea Clinton was not listed in a book of registered voters in New York City, her mother, Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, told The New York Times.

Daniel Tokaji, an assistant law professor at Ohio State University, said the preliminary reports indicated "hiccups" rather than endemic problems.

"The volume is about what you'd expect in an election where so many are using new technology for the first time," Tokaji said. "Inevitably there will be hiccups when such a major change is made to the election ecosystem."

Other states saw smaller-scale glitches that officials described as minor. New Jersey Division of Elections spokesman Jeff Lam said he had received reports of "scattered" problems affecting about a dozen machines in the entire state. "There's nothing systemic in terms of a particular machine having problems or a large number of specific machines," he said.

Vote 'calibration' raises hackles
Maryland, for one, had taken heat from election watchdogs--and even its Republican governor--for perceived problems with its Diebold touch-screen systems. The state also attracted negative attention during September's primary elections, when cards needed to operate the machines did not arrive at certain precincts in time for the polls' scheduled opening.

This time around, there have been occasional screen freezes and one or two machines that ultimately had to be shut down because of malfunctioning, but there has been "nothing certainly that's impeding voting or anything like that," said Ross Goldstein, the state's deputy elections administrator.

Representatives in Virginia, home to one of the nation's more , also weren't aware of major glitches. But that doesn't mean the experience has been entirely seamless, admitted Barbara Cockrell, Virginia's assistant secretary for elections and training. "I'm not so sure about the people," she said, adding: "There have been some folks who hit the (vote) button too soon and have cast the vote before they made all their choices."

In Texas, Ashley Burton, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State, relayed a similar scenario--no major equipment malfunctions in the Lone Star State, but the occasional report of "voter error." "They don't realize a fingernail can brush across a machine and mark their vote," she said.

Such issues should not be taken lightly, the EFF's Zimmerman said. He said the most common gripe he has been hearing from voters on Tuesday is related to vote "calibration"--that is, when voters think they have selected one candidate on a touch-screen machine and but are told on the subsequent vote confirmation screen that a different candidate was selected.

It's hard to say how widespread the problem is, but reports of that phenomenon are "coming from many, many jurisdictions," Zimmerman said. Sometimes poll workers or voters are able to figure out how to backtrack and make sure the vote is recorded correctly, but it's often a time-consuming process that leads to long lines, he added.

Robert Brehm, a spokesman for the New York state board of elections, said he had no electronic voting glitches to speak of. But that could be because the nation's third-most populous state is still only experimenting with electronic equipment--this year, it's relying almost entirely on old-fashioned lever machines instead.