June 24, 2024

Election 2008: What Might Go Wrong

Tomorrow, as everyone knows, is Election Day in the U.S. With all the controversy over electronic voting, and the anticipated high turnout, what can we expect to see? What problems might be looming? Here are my predictions.

Long lines to vote: Polling places will be strained by the number of voters. In some places the wait will be long – especially where voting requires the use of machines. Many voters will be willing and able to wait, but some will have to leave without casting votes. Polls will be kept open late, and results will be reported later than expected, because of long lines.

Registration problems: Quite a few voters will arrive at the polling place to find that they are not on the voter rolls, because of official error, or problems with voter registration databases, or simply because the voter went to the wrong polling place. New voters will be especially likely to have such problems. Voters who think they should be on the rolls in a polling place can file provisional ballots there. Afterward, officials must judge whether each provisional voter was in fact eligible, a time-consuming process which, given the relative flood of provisional ballots, will strain official resources.

Voting machine problems: Electronic voting machines will fail somewhere. This is virtually inevitable, given the sheer number of machines and polling places, the variety of voting machines, and the often poor reliability and security engineering of the machines. If we’re lucky, the problems can be addressed using a paper trail or other records. If not, we’ll have a mess on our hands.

How serious the mess might be depends on how close the election is. If the margin of victory is large, as some polls suggest it may be, then it will be easy to write off problems as “minor” and move on to the next stage in our collective political life. If the election is close, we could see a big fight. The worse case is an ultra-close election like in 2000, with long lines, provisional ballots, or voting machine failures putting the outcome in doubt.

Regardless of what happens on Election Day, the next day — Wednesday, November 5 — will be a good time to get started on improving the next election. We have made some progress since 2004 and 2006. If we keep working, our future elections can be better and safer than this one.


  1. I think these ware all valid concerns, and some of them played out. I waited nearly an hour in line to vote, and I do think that news outlets and radio stations could do a better job of letting people know what they are in for.

    Somewhat with some technological chutzpah could also set up a system in where prospective voters receive a series of confirmations that would re-enforce voting procedure and behavior. If people were more assured as far as procedure and could get information via e-mail, mail, phone, and every other contact method, they would be less likely to get confused about what they are supposed to do.

  2. i can’t help thinking it’s awesome that there has been such long lines all over… people taking a greater interest in public issues is always a good thing

  3. it’s awesome that there has been this “problem” of long lines all over… people taking a greater interest in public issues is always a good thing

  4. I’ve never in my LIFE waited longer in line at an election than 15 minutes. Voting is something that you do on the way to a Saturday bbq. For the life of me I can’t work out why A) voting isn’t compulsory in America and B) voting stations aren’t federally funded and supplied with equipment.

    In Australia it’s just a matter of showing up to the local primary school – there’s ALWAYS street parking – and while your kids play on the playground you go inside and cast your vote on the flawless and unconfusing* paper ballot.

    (*You get two pieces of paper, one for each of the Upper and Lower houses. In the Lower house you put the numbers 1-5 or maybe 1-4 for each of the 4 or 5 candidates. Then in the Upper house you put a single 1above the line in the box of the party you want to vote for (unless you want to fill every single box 1-80 below the line, which no-one does.) That’s it. 1,2,3,4,5. 1. Job done. Fold it up and put it in the box.

    It’s not rocket science.

    You don’t even have to prove who you are – as long as you’re registered (which is compulsory, so everyone is) you just show up, state your name, get it crossed off the paper book, and they give you your ballots. I’m sure you could vote for your mate if you wanted. Why not? Just go join the line again.

    If you’re not in your home district on voting day, no big deal, you just show up at the closest polling station (they’re everywhere) and show your driver’s license to them and they send your vote along for you.


    What’s this about turning people away? Ever??! Is that possible? Good lord. What a disaster.

  5. Early reports suggest that registration lookups may play a significant role in this election. (An anecdote to back this up: At my polling place yesterday, during early voting, someone came in to vote and was told she wasn’t registered. The room was small, and no one was speaking softly, so it turned out the municipality had her on the rolls under her former married name, which she had abandoned for most purposes after her divorce a couple of election cycles ago. The clerk happily handed her a ballot, but I wonder what would have happened with hostile election officials or in a swing-state jurisdiction.)

    • … but the reason I am hosting a polling place is because I want people to vote! The official policy of the county (Orange County, California) and probably the state is to do everything possible to permit a citizen to vote. Folks who are not on the roster have to do a bit more paperwork, their vote is tagged as “provisional”, and their vote may not be counted. (After the election there is a phone number to call to see if their vote was counted.)

      At the polling place, we do not turn people away. Ever.

      As to the roster – how the county choses to organize the roster does have a huge impact on the polling place. One election I got two precincts in separate lists, which meant two lists to check for each voter – not efficient! (That election had a very light turnout, so it was not a problem.)

      This election the county split the roster alphabetically (A-L & M-Z), and gave me enough poll workers to have two parallel streams with no contention. I have 1900-odd voters in my precinct (this is one of the busier sites). Between 7am and noon we collected 425 votes. At 7am we had a line of voters about 100 feet long. By 8am the line was under 20 feet (that with new voters arriving steadily). By 9:30am the line was gone.

      None of this is suitable for the news, as voters do not have to wait long, clerks are friendly and efficient, and voters generally cheerful.

  6. Michael Donnelly says

    …as I was too stupid to mail in my vote. Given the huge volume of noise and excitement for this election, I really wanted to experience it first-hand, even if it means the experience is less than pleasant.

    I am more than a bit concerned with the possibility of a voting machine mess. If the election is close, I will be forced to assume it was altered illegally. Every election has some kind of built-in “margin for error” where the various shenanigans perpetrated at various precincts can sway the result. In this particular election, I believe that “margin” is very high, from what I have learned of the voting machines. I know that I could easily exploit a large number of the vulnerabilities I’ve seen disclosed, all by myself, with a few years as an apprentice locksmith and a career spent tinkering with software.

    Involved players at every level have a lot more motivation and a lot more resources. I’ve got my fingers crossed that the known-good votes come in strong enough to wipe out the error in the machine.

  7. I didn’t understand this either, until I was actually in the States for a while in 2004 and saw what their ballots are like.

    It isn’t something simple like “here’s your ballot to vote for the president, and this one to vote for your local congress critter, and this one to vote for your senate reps”.

    Instead, every single level of government from county level on up sticks their oar in, with each level potentially adding dozens of issues to each ballot paper. The ballot papers end up looking more like a university exam than any kind of ballot paper I’ve ever seen (for the Australians in the audience, it makes our senate ballots look simple, and without any equivalent of voting above the line!)

    My estimate is that filling out a US ballot properly would probably take on the order of 10-15 minutes, compared to the at most 5 minutes to fill out an Australian one (and that’s only if you vote below the line on the senate ballot – otherwise you’re generally going to be measuring the time it takes to cast your vote in tens of seconds, not minutes)

    The press (especially outside the US) doesn’t care about the local issues and focuses on the presidential race, but it is almost certainly this bundling of all those referendum style questions into the main election process that leads to the long lines and messed up ballot design systems. Without all the referendum questions, US elections would probably go far more smoothly.

    I do find it odd that the advocates of voting reform in the US never even question this aspect of their system though. The quality of some of the referendum issues I saw when I was over there was pretty pathetic (not quite to the level of “Shall the county buy more 2H or 2B pencils next term?” but some of them really seemed like pretty trivial matters to be putting to a referendum).

    • I abosolutley agree!!! I will stand in line all day if I have to. I’m so excited to participate in such a historical event!!!

    • Carlos Gomez says

      I’m Canadian, and the the elections at various levels of government are run independently of one another. Also, we don’t elect the same multitude of positions as in the US. As a result the ballots on any given election are very straighforward.

      I am curious as to why the US seems to hold all their elections for all the different positions on the same day? Was it historically viewed as a mechanism for efficiency? Is it something that is legislated or mandated by the constitution?

  8. I am perpetually surprised not just by the references to queues in relation to this election, but even more by the fact that they are not much discussed. As a European, I associate the idea of queueing for hours to vote as a third world problem, just one more consequence of inadequate infrastructure and an underresrourced state. For there to be queues on election day would be extraordinary enough – but there seems to be passive acceptance of the fact that there are long queues for days beforehand.
    So why is it so hard to match election capacity with voter numbers – and why it that fact in itself not far more of a concern than it appears to be?

    • Figure that the news outlets are only going to report when there is a problem, and not all those reports are accurate. You cannot make your news sound interesting and exciting by reporting a lack of problems.

    • Not voting is somehow a part of being a democratic American (when, really, it’s LITERALLY the least that an adult can do to take part in being a part of the free world) – so they have almost no idea how many people to cater for. In Australia it’s easy: count the number of registered voters in your district – this is how many people will vote.

  9. You make an assertion: “the wait will be long – especially where voting requires the use of machines.”

    In my experience, this is wrong.

    I had worked at the polls in my neighborhood for about ten years. For the last several years voters have used electronic voting machines. Before the county a punched-paper ballot. My impression is that voters get through faster. Given that pretty much everything else is relatively constant, I would have to say the use of e-voting is a bit quicker.

    Not an controlled study by any means, but my impression.

    Note also that the local ROV (Registrar of Voters) is not messing around! This election they gave me 16 voting stations, 2 controllers, and 9 poll workers (more than I have ever had before) to process 1900-odd voters. This is more than in any past election. (How I am going to fit that all in my garage in an organized fashion, I have yet to figure out…) My polling place is going to be one of the busiest in the county – and I do feel the ROV has done pretty much all they can.

    But I do absolutely agree that current voting systems need to improve.

    • At my polling place, I had the choice to use an electronic machine (the same kind Ed has shown cannot add a column of numbers) or a paper ballot, so I got to observe a head-to-head comparison of sorts.

      The queue length for each station was about the same, as observed over the 20 minutes I waited to vote (at 6:10 AM). The vast majority of the overall wait time had nothing to do with the voting mechanism, but was entirely due to the slowness of the clerk looking up my name and the stupidity of a process which in effect had two clerks share one book to look names up in. One clerk was nearly always blocked waiting for the book held by the other to be released. Shockingly stupid way to do things, but it effectively moved the bottleneck away from the voting booths themselves!

  10. Alternatively, simply make a note to improve voting procedures for the next election…

    Big help; the US is in this mess largely because of attempting to “improve” the procedures from the 2000 election.


    Alternatively, simply make a note to improve voting procedures for the next election…