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Election 2012: Will Voting Machine Failure Affect the Final Count?

Constitutional Litigation Clinic co-authors new report on states’ readiness to handle Election Day voting machine failures

July 25, 2012 – 

With just a few months to go until voting in the national election begins, election administration experts today issued a 50-state report card that assesses each state on its preparedness to handle computerized voting machine problems and breakdowns, such as machines that won’t start, memory cards that can’t be read and votes that are mistallied. The report, “Counting Votes 2012: A state-by-state look at voting technology preparedness” finds that five states – Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin – are exceptionally well prepared to discover voting system errors and assure that voter are still able to cast their ballot, and those ballots are accurately counted. The report also found six states underprepared to deal with unexpected machine failures and system breakdowns, including long lines. Those states are Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Read the full report here (PDF). Click here (PDF) for an Executive Summary of the report. See a chart of all the states’ overall assessments here .

The report, by the Verified Voting Foundation, Common Cause and the Rutgers School of Law–Newark Constitutional Litigation Clinic, also makes concrete recommendations states can take now, in the weeks leading to Nov. 6, to assure that backup measures, such as emergency paper ballots and sound ballot accounting practices, are in place.

“Recent election history reminds us that equipment does fail and votes will be lost without key protections,” said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting. “We’re dependent on complex electronic voting systems that must be surrounded by robust procedures to safeguard votes and verify results if we are to avoid known and unknown risks of election failure. Do-overs are never an acceptable part of an election plan. Fair elections are at the heart of our democracy, yet many states are not yet prepared to survive voting system failures that could change results.”

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Voting machine failures are commonplace. In the last presidential election, 1,800 voting machine problems were reported across the country. In many cases, the errors can go undetected without protections in place.

In a municipal election in Palm Beach County, Florida, in March 2012, a problem with election management software allotted votes to the wrong candidate and the wrong contest; the mistake was uncovered during a routine post-election audit, a critical best practice. However, the report found that less than half the states perform post-elections audits that could catch such an error. Following a June 2009 election, officials in Pennington County, South Dakota, discovered a programming error that added thousands of non-existent votes to the county totals. And in a test-run for an online election in the September 2010 Washington, DC primary, a team of hackers changed all of the votes and installed their own candidates. The online voting system was days away from being launched in the actual general election for use by overseas and military voters. After the hack, the Internet voting system was canceled.

With so many jurisdictions and varying technologies, problems are inevitable.

“Errors will always occur - when any type of machine is involved.  For this reason, having paper records, audits, and  and other safeguards that can provide an independent check on the election results is an essential part of ensuring confidence in voting process,” said Susannah Goodman of Common Cause. 

The report recommends that every state adopt the best practices suggested here to safeguard democracy. 

The report rates each state  overall on a five-step scale, with the worst judged “inadequate,” and subsequent steps labeled “needs improvement,” “generally good,” “good,” and “excellent.” The scores are based on evaluations of each state on five specific areas:

  • Does the state require paper ballots or records of every vote cast?  When computer failures or human error cause machines to miscount, election officials can use the original ballots to determine the correct total. The paper ballots or records also can and should be used to audit the vote counts for accuracy.
  • Does the state have adequate contingency plans at each polling place in the event of machine failure?  
  • Does the state insure that marked ballots are not cast online? Such measures help protect military and overseas voters and their ballots from alteration, manipulation and privacy violations.
  • Has the state instituted a post-election audit of the reported vote tallies? Audits provide evidence to help determine whether the electronically reported results are correct, deter fraud, and other benefits.   
  • Does the state use robust ballot reconciliation and tabulation practices? These basic procedures help insure that no ballots are lost or added as votes are tallied and aggregated from the local to the state level. 

“No vote should be lost in 2012,” said Penny Venetis, co-director of the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic. “Technology exists to verify votes, and procedures could be  in place around the country to make sure that every vote is counted, as required by the constitution.”