June 24, 2024

Archives for November 2008

Voting Machines are Silent in Princeton Today

In my recent report on the Sequoia AVC Advantage DRE voting machine, I explained (in Section 32) that the AVC Advantage makes a chirping sound when the pollworker activates the machine to accept a vote, and makes the sound again when the voter presses the CAST VOTE button. In important purpose of this sound is to alert all witnesses in the room that a vote is being cast. This makes it harder for people to cast extra votes on the machine. This idea goes back a hundred years: equip the voting machine (or even a simple ballot box) with a bell that rings every time a ballot is cast. In my report I wrote that the AVC Advantage’s chirping sound is not as loud as it should be.

This morning when I voted in Princeton, New Jersey, the chirping sound was not heard at all. When the AVC Advantage machines were activated to vote, and when the voters pressed the CAST VOTE button, there was no sound at all. Configuring the machines in this way is not a good idea. It makes the voters more uncertain about whether their vote was cast, and it makes it easier to inadvertently or deliberately cast extra votes.

UPDATE: Other machines in Princeton are making sounds. Also, some voters who used these very same machines report hearing sounds. So at this point I don’t believe that it’s a county-wide configuration issue. It may be a local, temporary malfunction of the little speaker in the operator panel, or it may be something else.

Repeated voting, though made easier by the absence of a sound, would still require collusion with the pollworker standing outside the voting machine. Such collusion does not require criminal intent. It may take the form,
Voter: I’m not sure my vote registered.
Pollworker: OK, I’ll activate the machine again just to make sure.
This scenario is not as far-fetched as you might think.

UPDATE 2: Another voter reports that when she voted later in the day at a different location in Princeton, she listened carefully (when pressing the CAST VOTE button) for the sound, but did not hear it. In both my case and hers, the CAST VOTE button was lit before we pressed it, so presumably our votes did count, if the manufacturer’s standard firmware was installed in the AVC Advantage.

Louisiana Re-enfranchises Independent Voters

Two weeks ago I wrote that independent voters were disenfranchised in the Louisiana Congressional primaries: unclear or incorrect instructions by the Secretary of State to the pollworkers caused thousands of independent voters to be incorrectly precluded from voting in the open Democratic primary on October 4th.

Today I am told that Secretary of State Jay Dardenne has corrected the problem. Earl Schmitt, a “Commissioner in Charge” (head precinct pollworker) in the 15th ward of New Orleans, reports that all pollworkers were recently brought in for a two-hour training meeting. They were given clear instructions that independent voters are to be given a ticket marked “Democrat” that permits them to vote in today’s Democratic runoff primary election. (Because of a hurricane, the original September 6th primary was postponed to October 4th, and both parties’ runoff primaries are being held today, along with the Obama vs. McCain presidential election. The Democratic Party is permitting independents to vote in their primary; the Republican Party is not. The general election for congressional seats in Louisiana will be December 6th.)

I am happy that the Secretary of State moved quickly to retrain pollworkers. It’s not that no harm was done–after all, those independent voters might have made a difference in which candidates advanced to the runoff–but better late than never, in improving the administration of our elections.

Clarification: Only 2 of Louisiana’s 7 congressional districts required a runoff primary; the other 5 held their congressional general election on Nov. 4th.

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.