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Hotlines capture e-voting glitches

Voter reports reveal slip-ups but no catastrophic failures.

Hundreds of voters reported problems with e-voting machines. Credit: © AP Photo/J.Pat Carter

As politicians and lawyers digest the result of the US presidential election, several groups have focused attention on the problems with electronic balloting that were reported by voters during the polls.

One hotline, run by the non-partisan Election Protection coalition, allowed people to call in and report problems they encountered when placing their ballot, including difficulties with e-voting machines. The glitches in electronic voting equipment stretched across the country and left many voters frustrated, according to activists.

The most common e-voting difficulty reported as the election got under way involved cases where voters claimed that the final summary screen indicated a candidate different from the one for whom they had voted. The problem raises significant concerns because it appeared across a variety of types of touch-screen voting machine, says Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technology policy group based in San Francisco.

But David Bear, spokesman for the leading e-voting equipment manufacturer Diebold Election Systems, believes that these voters had actually made a mistake, so the summary screen fulfilled its purpose by allowing them to double-check their selections. "That's what the summary screen is for," says Bear. He emphasizes that the electronic equipment undergoes stringent testing before reaching the polls. Voters that found the summary screen displayed an inaccurate selection could go back and fix their electronic ballot.

Other types of problems reported involved machines that indicated a candidate before the voter had made a choice. People also claimed to be unable to complete the voting process because the machine screens went dark.

"I think New Orleans wins the award for the worst voting situation in the country when it comes to electronic voting machines," says Cohn. A significant number of the city's machines did not boot up on time for a variety of reasons.

It was a problem that cropped up elsewhere as well. "But the difference between New Orleans and some of the other counties is that New Orleans hadn't prepared any back-up plan," says Cohn, "As a result they didn't have paper ballots or, frankly, anything to offer to voters when their machines didn't work, and they had to turn people away."

Tip of the iceberg

By the time polling began to wrap up on the East Coast, the Election Protection coalition says it had received over 600 reports of e-voting problems from across the country.

The number of reports is very low compared with the total number of voters who used the machines. But David Dill, founder of the Verified Voting Foundation and a computer scientist at Stanford University, California, points out that not everyone who experiences a problem will make a complaint.

"I think we can get a rough picture of how severe the problems are if we assume that a very small percentage of those voters are actually filing reports," he says.

Dill, like other election-rights activists, views these numbers as the tip of an iceberg. But as the repercussions of another close election move into the media spotlight, the debate over how e-voting technology fared on 2 November is likely to cool.

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Khamsi, R. Hotlines capture e-voting glitches. Nature (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/news041101-10

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