When it comes to elections, you don't need to say more than three words - Florida in 2000 - to remind people how big an issue individual states' voting technology and practices can be in a close election.
Twelve years later, elections practices remain inadequate in many states, including important swing states like Pennsylvania, Colorado and Virginia, according to a studyproduced by the Verified Voting Foundation (an education non-profit organization whose mission is to "safeguard elections in the digital age"), Rutgers Law School's Constitutional Litigation Clinic, and Common Cause (a nonpartisan lobbying organization promoting "accountable government").
The study evaluated each of the 50 states and graded them based on an evaluation of five questions: Does the state require paper ballots or records? Does the state have adequate contingency plans at every polling place in the event of machine failure? Does the state protect overseas voters by ensuring that their ballots are not cast online? Does the state have a post-election audit to verify outcomes? Does the state use solid ballot tabulation practices?
Records, contingency plans and detailed verification processes are crucial not because there's a chance that something could go wrong, but because history has shown that somewhere, some problem will come up.
"It's likely that some voting systems will fail in multiple places across the country- in every national election some failures have come up," says Pamela Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation on a conference call to reporters. "It's Murphy's Law even in elections that something can and will go wrong."
Pennsylvania, Colorado and Virginia scored "inadequate" grades on the report because they use paperless machines in some or all counties, which means that no independent record is produced for the votes cast. If the vote is very close, there's no paper trail to use in a recount, so if a voting machine malfunctions, there's no way to find and correct the miscalculation.
Several other swing states received poor grades in other areas. Nevada was rated "needs improvement" with regard to their contingency plans in the event of equipment failures. New Hampshire received an "inadequate" rating on audits; the state does not conduct them.
With less than four months to go until election day, the issues cited in the report cannot be fixed in time for this election cycle. Changing a state's voter practices is a lengthy, involved and highly bureaucratic process. Depending on the necessary changes it can involve re-allocating a state's budget to update equipment, or it can involve passing new legislation to implement a new auditing process.
However, experts conducting the research expressed hope for changes going forward.
"There is an insufficient length of time for a jurisdiction to change to a new voting system," said Susannah Goodman, director of the Voting Integrity Program at Common Cause. "However, many of them are moving towards that direction going forward, and I expect many of these states are going to be fully papered up and going to be able to do audits statewide and be in a much better position by the next general election."