June 24, 2024

Voting technology issues in Virginia on election day

I spent Election Day in one of the command centers for the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline. The command center was accepting calls from New Jersey, Maryland, DC, and Virginia, but 95% of the technology issues were from Virginia. I was the designated “technology guy”, so pretty much everything that came through that center came to me. This gave me a pretty good perspective on the scope of issues. (I don’t know about the non-technology issues, although I heard discussions of issues like demanding more ID than is required, voter intimidation, etc.)

Following is a summary of what I saw. What’s most interesting is that if you divide things into “easy to solve” and “hard to solve”, the “easy to solve” ones are all in places using optical scan, and the “hard to solve” are all in places using DREs (colloquially known as “touch screens”, although not all of them are).

Hard to solve problems included:

  • Long lines. In most cases these seemed to be caused by people waiting for machines, not problems with checking voters in, but it’s sometimes hard to tell. These were most pronounced in locations with DREs – if you’ve got paper ballots, you just hand out more pencils. In some cases, pollworkers were turning voters away, telling them to come back later – for whatever reason, they weren’t using the emergency paper ballots that were intended for this case.
  • Machines that won’t boot or crash. In most cases these were DREs, in which case they led to long lines. If it was an optical scan, see below under “easy to solve problems”.
  • Problems with the magnified version of ballots. In Norfolk and Virginia Beach, there were repeated reports that the magnified version only showed Romney on the first screen, and to get other presidential candidates the voter had to advance to a separate screen. I was quite surprised by this – I guess Logic and Accuracy (L&A) testing performed before the election doesn’t include the magnified versions in those localities?
  • Ballot setup problems – in particular, in Covington VA, the DRE offered a choice of Obama as the Republican nominee or Romney as the Democratic nominee. After coverage on the local TV station, the locality shut off the DREs and went to paper ballots, which had the candidates associated with the proper parties. The part that scared me was a quote from the local election official that “All votes that were cast Tuesday morning will be counted properly.” I don’t know what “properly” means in a case like this. (See http://www.wdbj7.com/news/wdbj7-story-grayson-voting-11612,0,5763810.story) Again, shouldn’t this be found by L&A testing?
  • Ballot setup problems – reports from across the state that people weren’t getting the presidential race, and it was going straight to the Senate race. These are unfortunately hard to reproduce. When I asked voters about the confirmation screen, they generally said there hadn’t been one.
  • Ballot display problems – several reports that the ballot was displaying party name but not candidate name. It’s possible, of course, but hard to reproduce. Only on DREs, of course.
  • Pollworker errors in helping voters. We got a few reports that voters complained of problems (e.g., “no presidential race”) and called over a pollworker, who pushed the “cast vote” (or equivalent), and then refused to let them vote again. (Which was, unfortunately, probably the right answer.)

Easy to solve problems included:

  • Voters confused why ballots were being put into the side pocket of the scanner and concerned that the ballots wouldn’t be counted (obviously because the scanner wasn’t working, and they would be counted by hand or machine at the end of the day).
  • Not enough paper ballots for the number of voters. This was especially true in places that had DREs, but the DREs didn’t work (or the lines were long), so they were using the “emergency” ballots. In Virginia, the chief pollworker in a precinct can make photocopies of the ballot with minimal approvals. Unfortunately, this wasn’t well understood by pollworkers who didn’t take advantage of it.
  • Using markers instead of pens or pencils. This can be a problem if the marker bleeds through on a double-sided ballot, as the scanner may pick up the reverse-side mark as intentional.
  • An optical scan machine bouncing ballots as overvoted (too many votes for one or more candidates) when voters insist they hadn’t. Hard to say if this was a calibration issue, a smudge on a reader, or an actual voter mistake. In any case, the solution is simple – just hand count the ballots.

And then there are the weird problems, like voters reporting that they were told to sign their ballots (not sure I believe that one).

One of the more unusual problems was a voter who ran into the “no presidential race” situation described above. He said he knew he hadn’t voted for president, and got to the summary screen where it didn’t show a presidential choice. At that point, he cast his vote, under the impression that there would be a separate ballot to cast for president. I don’t know how he came up with that mental model, but it’s very hard to come up with a solution given that view of how voting works.

Bottom line – a wide assortment of strange problems. Moving to optical scan will solve the vast majority, but given tight budgets, it’s going to be a while in Virginia.


  1. Andrew Douglass says

    Hi Robert and Desiree and all,

    I worked at an Arlington VA precinct as a voter advocate (a project of the Democrats) and am more than happy to share some of my 18 hours of not-always-happy experiences. 🙂

    Briefly, I think the lines at multiple precincts were a tragedy. We ran 2-3 hours all day and I know people left in anger or simply late to work.

    The lines had multiple causes. One “cause” cited by an official that I bristle at was “high turnout.” I think that’s like excusing not having enough lifeboats on the Titantic. The system should be able to handle voters doing what they are supposed to do, and the numbers were not that hard to predict.

    We promoted paper ballots plenty but 95% of voters preferred the DRE’s, even if it meant a line of a 20 people. However if the line got a tad longer they did choose paper, and the DRE line rarely slowed check-in. It did not help that we had a wordy ballot (nothing like Florida’s!) but with $10 paper voting stations versus $3k DRE’s that would not be a big deal to scale up for.

    I would have gotten rid of the DRE’s altogether so no one would feel cheated. I use paper and I admit I found it unnerving, like I’d more likely make a mistake. Voters don’t however stop to wonder what goes on inside the DRE, beneath the user experience. Ours run Windows XP and don’t record individual votes, reporting aggregates that are impossible to audit.

    Oddly enough, Virginia has banned the purchase of more DRE’s, so what i suggest will happen anyway. I heard that law falsely blamed for the slowdowns too.

    Robert—the utility bill and voter ID are, true, not good forms of authentication, but they aren’t really needed as such. In-person voter fraud is extremely rare, so it’s hard to say very weak requirements (which trip up genuine voters) are better than no requirement. People being in the wrong precinct or having defective registration (often thanks to Motor Voter) were common. The voter ID card, which looks as easy to forge as it could be, was actually better for our purposes than a driver’s license because it proved you were in the database at one time, so being unable to find you was the registrar’s bad. You were going to at least end up with a provisional ballot.

    I am not happy with my county’s performance. I don’t think their administration was bad, especially compared to what goes on elsewhere, but I hope for better.

    One thing I’d think obvious would be to have equipment and personnel to deploy as problems arose. Our precinct received no relief all day.

    As for volunteering at the polls, I think that’s a terrific idea. It kind of ruined election day for me though. I was working by 5:15 am, and hardly sat down all day. I was not home until they called the Presidential election, so I missed out on rooting for my team…… I did however help several dozen people to vote and served along with many others as insurance to anticipate and document anything messy breaking out.

    — Andrew

    • Jeremy Epstein says

      Andrew, thanks for your comments. Just a note in response to this statement: “Oddly enough, Virginia has banned the purchase of more DRE’s, so what i suggest will happen anyway. I heard that law falsely blamed for the slowdowns too.”

      I was co-founder of a group, Verifiable Voting Coalition of Virginia, which wrote this law. Our goal was quite deliberate, namely that by preventing purchase of DREs, to force localities to move to optical scan. As you’ve correctly noted, you can afford a lot of $10 voting stations to mark optical scan ballots before you get to the cost of a $3K DRE (which are actually closer to $5K – plus lots of ongoing maintenance, batter replacements, etc).

      Our goal then was three-fold – to eliminate the DREs as they wear out, to get to optical scans which can be audited and recounted, and to save money by moving the rest of the state to optical scan. My concern now is that blaming the shortage of DREs will reverse this progress, increase the costs to taxpayers, and reduce the accuracy of our elections.

      • Andrew Douglass says

        I wish the law had banned DRE’s outright. The optical alternative is dirt cheap and the major reason to retire the DRE’s is cost, which as you not continues in maintenance.

        BTW we saw a couple of freezes but none of the weirder malfunctions. I’m at a loss to understand why the machines don’t record individual ballots (or do they?). It would be interesting for example if a machine started reporting votes for just one candidate from 3 pm on. I would like a representation of exactly what the voter saw etc. That is, if I wanted to endorse the technology. (Not that optical scanners are faultless—are they given known test batches?)

        The public is not going to like the switch. Almost no one had optical as they first choice, choosing it when the lines got too long—I think it’s viewed as the desperate fallback. Not will many registrars will like it either (I asked ours about it and encountered hostility—”the optical scan has problems too; you’re entitled to your opinion). Some PR might help. I blasted a local official who blamed lack of DRE’s and high turnout, the latter being like excusing the Titanic for not having enough lifeboats.

        I’m astounded the legislature intervened. As I said in another conversation, kudos.

        • Andrew Douglass says

          Lol, please forgive my many typos in the preceding. It must be the fault of this electronic recording device.

          • Jeremy Epstein says

            Most of the machines keep “cast vote records” which are supposed to be indications of what the voter selected. Most do not keep any detailed records of whether, for example, the voter checked and then unchecked candidates, which might indicate vote flipping problems. And the records are kept without timestamps (usually), and not in order (usually) to prevent someone from using the information to figure out who cast which vote.

            Most election officials like DREs for a variety of reasons, as do most voters – they’re “modern” (= cool), they make the job of the pollworkers easy (no counting necessary), reduce under/over votes, etc. In short, they’re better than paper in almost every way *except* the most important ones – (1) ability to recover from a software failure, (2) ability to audit/recount, and (3) life cycle cost.

            The reason the legislature intervened was due to several cases where members of both parties had problems with DREs. Unlike most states, in Virginia, it was a nonpartisan issue, with most of the heavy lifting being done by Republicans (Delegate Tim Hugo in the state house and Senator Jeanmarie Devolites Davis in the senate), but with support from both sides, including Sen Creigh Deeds when it looked like the law was going to be overturned. Deeds understands the issue, having lost the 2005 Attorney General race by a narrower margin than Bush v. Gore (margin was 0.015% – less than two hundredths of a percent), but since Virginia was almost entirely DRE, there was no way to do a recount, so he conceded.

  2. Desiree Campbell says

    In speaking with friends and colleagues in Northern Virginia, all shared the same experience — at all times of the day, there were long lines (30 minutes to hours) for the electronic voting machines, whereas there were plenty of empty cubbies for filling out a paper ballot – and no wait. This informal observation is pulled for multiple voting precincts. My friends and colleagues all voted by paper – and all were amazed by the numbers of people unhappily waiting for a voting machine. It makes me wonder if the voting officials adequately explained to them they had a choice? Or, do they distrust a paper and pencil so badly that they will give up their time to wait to vote electronically? At my precinct, the voting official explained the paper option was just like exams (SATs or LSATs) you had to fill out back in school – a comfortable anaology for some, but it clearly would not resonate with others.

    I agree with the previous commenter – perhaps I need to volunteer to work the polls next time, so I can see firsthand how easy or difficult it is to get thousands of people through the process, not just throw stones.

  3. Robert Cannon says

    In Arlington on election day, the line at my polling station was a block long. When I got inside the voting place, the line was for the DREs. There were maybe 5 optical scan voting booths set up, and one was in use.

    In some ways I think the problem was one of familiarity. The “voting booth” for the optical scan was a cardboard box set on a table. I mean, “what the hell is that.” Where the DRE looked like the voting booth that I have been use to for years. It looked official, where the optical booth looked like a joke.

    Reviewing your reports, I was offered either, and the path to the optical booths and the DRE’s was a fork in the path – both were equally accessible. The election volunteers looked flustered. They were overwhelmed with voters and there was a lot of anxiety. You offered your phone bill (as something that could be easily manipulated). I offered my voter ID card, which I though was a joke as it was flimsy paper and easy to replicate.

    I thought Arlington did an excellent job. It is one of those peak flow problems. They run elections, sometimes a couple times a year. I think we voted twice this year. Sometimes maybe a couple hundred voters show up. Sometime 1000s. There is confusion over what the law is as it is changing. There is confusion over the machines as they are changing. The staff are volunteers. There was lots of anxiety. And I would not call Virginia a swing state – more like a war zone. Pulling off a successful election in these conditions – I think the county did pretty good. My take away??? I think I need to volunteer to work at the polls next time round.

  4. Paulo Silva says

    It seems it’s all basically due to poor planning and poor execution. I can’t see how technology couldn’t improve or resolve any of the issues listed above. But bad planning and poor execution can ruin anything. Standardization of voting systems used on DREs could easily and rapidly improve reliability and security, just to say one thing. Many practical and common sense solutions could be easily applied as well.

    As for using paper ballots as the main voting method, this is 21th century! People want to get elections returns as quick and reliable as possible. Wait 2+ days to pronnouce a winner is so last century!

  5. I do not understand why the US puts up with and/or bothers with electronic voting.
    My comparison is Germany, where all voting is exclusively done through paper ballots, which are then counted by representatives of all parties locally and communicated to the central elections clearinghouse.
    No problems with hanging chaff, buggy software, completely accessible process and a documented paper trail in case a recount is needed. Election results are usually in by next morning, with recounts finished by day 2.