"By the way, we have to fix that," President Obama said in his acceptance speech last night. No, he wasn't referring to a specific economic, social or policy issue. He was referring to the issue of voting lines. Long, long voting lines.
Across the nation yesterday, and then subsequently across Twitter and Facebook, U.S. citizens shared frustrations, photos and information about voting lines. The images of the long queues were a dime a dozen, especially when you looked at the #stayinline hashtag on Twitter. People in states like Florida and Ohio waited up to seven hours. In other states, there were shorter, though still-frustrating two- to three-hour waits.
Some experts place the blame on high turnout, but many will tell you the culprit is technology – failed and faulty e-voting machines.
Electronic voting systems
Gone are the days of pulling the lever. Instead now there are two main voting systems: optical scan paper ballot systems and direct recording electronic systems (DREs). Very few jurisdictions still rely on punch cards and hand-counted paper ballots.
The optical scan paper ballot system is the most widely used. A voter fills out a paper ballot using a pen and then it is put in a scanner. The votes are tallied through a computer, similar to a Scantron, which is used to score the SATs and other standardized tests.
The second method relies completely on electronics – no paper. The direct recording electronic systems (DREs) include machines that record votes directly onto computer memory. A voter fills out a ballot on the computer directly, either using a touchscreen, button, or a dial.
"It is an electronic version of the lever," explained Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to elections and voting. According to the organization, close to two-thirds of the population used the scanning option while one-third rely on the DRE machines.
But while the DREs and the scanners were supposed to be an improvement over the lever-based systems and hand-punched cards, breakdowns and malfunctions of the equipment have caused issues.
With the scanners, the major issue has been broken machines or paper jams. "What we saw yesterday in some jurisdictions was poll workers asking people to wait and come back because the scanner wasn't working or they had a jam problem. In some events some were asked to fill out new ballots to see if that would go into the scanner," Smith said. "Unfortunately, that resulted in lines because of the equipment failures."
In those cases, Smith and other experts point out that voters can still fill out the ballot and it can then be scanned when the machines are fixed. Some poll managers might know how to repair the jams, but others won't, according to Dominion Voting, a company that makes and provides support for the scanning systems.
With the DRE machines, there was another host of errors, the most notable being a machine in Pennsylvania that switched a vote for Barack Obama to Mitt Romney due to a touchscreen calibration error. There were other reports of similar errors due to touchscreen issues. Many of the touchscreen-equipped machines are made by ES&S, and use resistive screens, an older form of touch technology that requires a firmer press or a sharp point. That type of screen is used in many ATMs or airport kiosks.
Current smartphones and tablets use capacitive screens, which are more sensitive to taps and touches. Smith mentioned that in some centers voters were given a pencil to help make selections on the screen when they have difficulty getting touches to register. ES&S confirmed to ABC News that the systems were last manufactured in 2006.
Aging and unrepaired machines
The type of touchscreen in the systems represents the age of the machines themselves.
"The very unsexy story of this election is the machinery we are using. It is getting older and older, and some of these things are 10 to 15 years old," Joseph Lorenzo Hall, a senior technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told ABC News.
But not only is the tech old, but the machines simply aren't being repaired or cared for.
"Why, after all this time and experience, is this happening still in 2012? What we think is that in some places they were actually starting out with fewer pieces of equipment than in the past," Smith said. Some districts reported to Verified Voting that as much as 25 percent of the equipment wasn't working. Other experts ABC spoke to said the same. Many cited examples like, while there were eight machines in a particular poll place last year, this year there was only five.
In Lee County, Fla., where some of the longest lines were, the Supervisor of Elections said that there was not a large enough backup supply of scanning machines. Districts simply hadn't repaired or replaced machines since past elections.
"You are going to have issues of the wear and tear over time. But everyone knows that counties and local districts have been under budgetary pressures," Chris Riggall, a spokesperson for Dominion Voting, told ABC News. "It is always a pressure to get funding for voting systems, when you have other demands at the local level, which is where all this happens." Dominion Voting provides in-person and help desk support for optical scanner systems.
Fixes for the future
Naturally, the proponents of online voting say that Internet voting is the right technology solution. In fact, when ABC spoke to Lori Steele, the CEO of Everyone Counts, a company that makes online voting solutions, she pointed to these electronic voting issues and said they will be the reason people turn to voting through the Internet.
However, others don't see the likelihood of Internet voting, due to heavy security concerns; they maintain a bigger change has to happen. "In two major jurisdictions election officials have reached out to technologists, to audit experts, to different language experts, to usability advocates in an effort to identify what they want in the next generation of voting systems," Smith said. "Our next voting system isn't just going to go to the current marketplace for the solution."
Then there are those who believe the biggest fix can come from a different technology -- the technology of organizing people. "It is a matter of management, not technology," Charles Stewart, a political science professor at MIT, told ABC News. "Having too few voting centers, having too few staff and not putting the resources in the right places. Really, it is a matter of management."
Others echoed that point, saying that much of the bottleneck of the lines happens as people check-in at the polls, not with the availability of working machines.
Whatever the solution, the experts agreed with the re-elected president of the United States: "We have to fix that."