How Faulty and Outdated Voting Machines Contributed to Voter Lines and Frustration

PHOTO: Linda Cooper-Suggs runs absentee ballots through a machine that counts the results, Nov. 6, 2012 at the Wilson County Board of Elections office, as Susan Tyson, and Chip Futrell sort the ballots in the background, in Wilson, N.C.
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"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.

Touchscreen-based voting machines.

"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.

Technology breakdowns
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.

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