Poll Screw-Ups: Snow, 'Invisible Ink' and Missing Ballots

Calif. runs out of ballots and 20 in Chicago fooled by "invisible ink" stylus.

February 11, 2009, 10:05 PM

Feb. 5, 2008 — -- It wasn't quite a "hanging chad" moment, but Oprah Winfrey stepped in early today to resolve one of the first voting glitches of Super Tuesday.

When Rachel Waymire got to her Chicago precinct this morning to vote, she was told that she wouldn't be able vote because only one of five election judges was present.

When Winfrey, who happened to be at the next-door precinct, heard about the problem, the talk show queen and Barack Obama supporter told Waymire she would stay with her until she was allowed to cast her ballot.

"She just kind of stood there and then as soon as I got to vote she left and she said, 'I'll call you later to make sure that you voted.' And probably about an hour later I was sitting at my desk and she called my cell phone," Waymire told Chicago's talk station WLS, adding that she voted for Obama.

That was just one of several mishaps and polling flukes on the most busy primary day in history.

One of the more unusual blunders, consistent with Chicago's notorious history of political hijinks, involved 20 voters on the city's North Side who were convinced by a precinct worker that a stylus for marking electronic touch screens was actually a pen with "invisible ink" to be used for marking paper ballots.

The ballots were rejected by the machine and election officials had to scramble to find the voters who cast bad ballots, eventually getting 10 of them to vote with real ink.

A spokesman for the city's Board of Elections said there was no skullduggery involved and confirmed that one of the 20 voters was the wife of an election judge.

Meanwhile, on the city's West Side, police were called to a polling place after a fight broke out between two female election judges, leaving one injured and one in police custody.

The weather played havoc with voting results in Lake County, Ill., on Tuesday afternoon, as a snowstorm may have impacted telephone lines and delaying the transmission of vote totals. As a result, poll workers had to hand-deliver ballots to the county clerk's office.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton, had to wait for almost an hour to vote this morning because voting machines didn't work at his polling place, the Hoboken Fire Department Engine Company No. 2. About a dozen voters were turned away and it was unclear what caused the problem.

Because another polling site in Jersey City opened almost an hour late this morning, a lawyer for Obama's campaign was in Hudson County Superior Court arguing that the site should be kept open until 8:50 p.m. tonight, the Jersey Journal reported, but was turned down by a judge.

In John McCain's home state of Arizona, there were scattered reports of irregularities that included registered voters' names missing from registration lists, identification problems and changes in polling locations that confused voters who were not provided an opportunity to vote by provisional ballot.

After more than six polling sites in New Mexico ran out of ballots due to heavy voter turnout, new ballots had to be frantically printed and sent via couriers to those locations, according to the state's Democratic Party.

Five precincts in California's Santa Clara County and about a dozen precincts in Alameda County also ran out of ballots, reportedly due to large numbers of independent voters requesting Democratic ballots. The Santa Clara County registrar was urging voters to bring sample ballots or wait in line to use the few electronic voting machines meant to serve the disabled and affected precincts in Alameda County were kept open until 9:00 p.m.

There were problems with voting machines including temporary glitches in St. Louis and Chicago and two-hour waits at some polling stations in Fulton County, Ga. In Los Angeles, voting machines weren't delivered to several polling locations.

Even in Beverly Hills, Calif., there were glitches and a shortage of poll workers forced some voters to cast provisional ballots. "There's so much frustration in this country, so to feel like I'm a disenfranchised voter in Beverly Hills is ridiculous," Kristen Bell, an Obama supporter, told the Los Angeles Times.

And in Wisconsin, Texas and Virginia, some clueless voters showed up at polling locations even though primaries weren't taking place in those states today.

But there weren't any large-scale failures like the "hanging chad" nightmare that resulted in the historic Florida recount of 2000.

Since then, dozens of states have spent millions of dollars to purchase electronic voting machines and to put in places ways to verify votes. But was all that money worth it?

Problems have persisted in almost every federal election since 2000. Just two weeks ago, Republican primary voters in Horry County, S.C., were turned away from some precincts where paperless electronic machines weren't working.

As voters head to the polls today on an election day with the most delegates at stake and a tightening Democratic contest, some are concerned that there could be chaos at the polling booths with malfunctioning machines and disputed results.

Six states, including New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Arkansas, Delaware and Tennessee, are "considered at high risk for having election results affected by machine malfunction or tampering," according to a report by Common Cause and the Verified Voting Foundation, nonprofit groups committed to accountable politics.

Those states made the list because they don't have safeguards in place such as requiring machines to produce paper ballots or records and requiring random postelection audits of the machines, according to the voting foundation's president, Pamela Smith.

"If a situation arises where there is a question about the results, what do you do?" said Smith. "The states that we've listed at high risk — the voting systems may work, it may not work. But there's no way to prove it's accurate. Things can and do go wrong."

Smith says that many states and counties rushed to buy electronic voting machines without regarding the need for a way to verify votes if the machine malfunctioned.

"What happened was people moved too quickly to all electronic and didn't realize that they had to have a way to check for accuracy," she said.

Although most electronic voting machines have worked well, there have been some well-publicized debacles.

In the November 2006 election in Sarasota County, Fla., where the race was decided by 369 votes, more than 17,000 ballots showed no votes cast, a difference that had the potential to change the results.

Election officials in the six states considered "high-risk" in the report insist that their machines work well and that they don't anticipate any problems.

New York, which still uses old-fashioned lever machines, will provide emergency paper ballots and technicians if the machines break down, according to Lee Daglian, spokesman for the state board of elections.

"I haven't heard from anyone in any county about any problems with the machines," he said, adding that the report's authors "shouldn't be concerned because historically, they work pretty well."

New Jersey was set to switch to paper-based systems by Jan. 1, 2008, but the deadline was extended to June. 'We are confident that every voter's vote will count," said David Wald, spokesman for the state attorney general. "The machines are polished and dusted and ready to go."

In Arkansas, most of the state's 75 counties have a voter-verified paper trail in the machines, but three counties haven't made the change. The state also uses Ivotronic touch screens, the type that didn't work in Sarasota County in 2006.

"They've been tested in five statewide elections with good success and we're not concerned," said a spokesperson for the Arkansas secretary of state. "It's worked for us so far and we're not about to overhaul it in this election year."

In Delaware, the state's electronic voting machines store the results in three places: on a paper tape in the machine, on the machine itself and on a cartridge, all of which allow ballot image retention, says a spokesman for the state's commissioner of elections.

Georgia has one of the strictest levels of requirement for the testing of machines, according to Matt Carruthers, a spokesman for the secretary of state. "In addition to testing procedures, on Election Day, monitors are deployed throughout the state and we have technical support specialists available to respond."

A coordinator for the Tennessee Division of Elections did not return calls seeking comment.

The ABC News Law & Justice Unit's Reynolds Holding and Lauren Pearle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.