November 7, 2006 3:07 PM PST

E-voting glitches disrupt election day

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 electronic voting machines. 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.

E-voting

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.

CONTINUED: Some states avoid big problems…
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