Calculation 2006: Are the Voting Machines Doing Their Job?

UPDATED November 7, 2006 3:50 pm ET

12:00 pm ET As morning ended on Election Day in the US, voting precincts throughout the country are, as expected, reporting sporadic problems with newly installed electronic voting equipment. There are no outright disasters reported just yet, though heavier-than-normal turnout for a mid-term election may be increasing pressure on volunteers to make certain systems work flawlessly.

This morning in Indiana’s Marion and Delaware counties, which include Indianapolis, a single computer error was blamed for holdups in as many as 75 of the state’s 914 precincts. An apparent erroneous program caused voting to be delayed for several hours. In a total 100 precincts in Marion county alone, touch-screen voting equipment could not be started up, and time was spent converting booths to standby paper ballots. As a result, polls here will remain open until 8:40 pm ET.

My own home district is Marion County, where this morning I voted using the traditional paper ballot, after the premiere of touch-screen equipment was scrapped. There were no delays.

In St. Louis, where the Missouri US Senate race is historically tight, the largest newspaper has asked citizens to report voting irregularities – or the lack of them – to an online forum. There, at least one voter reported of a suburban polling station whose electronic equipment could not be booted, forcing the precinct to resort to paper ballots.

But many voters there are reporting the electronic equipment they used there is running smoothly. As one fellow commented at 11:00 am ET, his precinct gave voters the choice of touch-screens or paper ballots. He chose the electronic method, and may have been the first voter that morning to do so. While the equipment worked flawlessly, he said, his voting inspectors were in a panic, apparently waiting for something to break.

In Baltimore, in a state where the election was thrown into turmoil two years ago on account of malfunctioning Diebold systems, volunteers and officials reported a very smooth morning on historically high turnout. One precinct reported electronic voting machines were not working, on account of missing power cords. But as the Baltimore Sun quotes a deputy state elections administrator as saying this morning, “Here or there, there are issues, but nothing like the last time.”

The most recent Sun poll showed the state’s incumbent governor, Bob Ehrlich, having narrowed his re-election deficit against Democrat challenger, Martin O’Malley, to just one percentage point. Ehrlich is a vocal critic of the state’s all-electronic voting system, but lacks the authority to remove election officials who were appointed by his predecessor, who helped install that equipment. If the election outcome mirrors the latest polls, his supporters may lose some sleep for at least several days.

In eastern Arkansas, the Crittenden County clerk’s office reported electronic voting machines that failed to boot, forcing precincts to resort to paper balloting. Election officials in that state estimate that as much as 20% of the eligible electorate may already have voted using “early ballots,” which is a system Arkansas and other states now use to encompass absentee ballots, as well as voters who are present but simply don’t want to risk touching screens.

In Memphis, Tennessee, Democrat US Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr. –- whose deficit against Republican Bob Corker has narrowed to about 3 percentage points in major polls -– complained early this morning of voting machines that have failed to start throughout the city. Ford’s office is already leveling one challenge, he said, on behalf of voters who were dismissed from their precincts until later in the day when problems could be resolved.

From Riverside County, California, the Secretary of State’s office received word there that machines manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems may contain a non-so-secret little yellow button, ostensibly for diagnostic purposes, but which could potentially enable any voter to “enter administrator mode,” if you will, and vote multiple times.

3:30 pm ET A reporter for the Palm Beach, Florida Post reports personally witnessing voting machine irregularity in her own local precinct. An election worker was apparently explaining to voters needing help with the touch screens that they may be especially sensitive, and that you had to press a certain way. During the demonstration, though, voters could plainly see the screen recording a “Yes” on a referendum issue as a “No” vote. The reporter did not go on to say whether the vote accidentally counted.

In Virginia, where Sen. George Allen (R) faces a strong challenge from Democrat Jim Webb, news sources report extraordinarily heavy turnout – as much as double the levels of the mid-term elections four years ago. When all the votes are tallied, as much as 65% of the registered electorate may have voted, which would be double the 2002 turnout.

Part of that huge number may be accountable to increased use of absentee ballots, which experts partly attribute to fear and distrust of electronic voting machines. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports a 50% increase in absentee ballots returned from the number cast for the 2003 gubernatorial race.

3:50 pm ET In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, it’s the paper ballot-counting machines that were malfunctioning. A full 57 of the county’s 275 eScan machines were malfunctioning, half of which, an election official tells the local paper, are accountable to simple paper jamming. The county’s eSlate machines, however – with the touch screen – are reportedly working well. A judge there has declared the polls may remain open until 9 pm ET.

In Houston’s Fort Bend County this morning, the start of voting to replace outgoing Rep. Tom DeLay was delayed for two hours, as at least two precincts discovered they were delivered voting machines that belonged to each other. Votes were apparently actually cast before someone noticed that he was voting for people he shouldn’t have been voting for.

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