States Ready E-voting Systems

With about four weeks to go before the U.S. presidential election, states across the nation are preparing for heavy voter turnout that could cause problems for local elections officials and electronic voting systems.

To address those challenges, election officials say they're ramping up early to review Election Day preparations and ensure that there are enough paper ballots on hand and that poll workers are adequately trained.

To gauge that progress, Computerworld checked with several states where e-voting problems have occurred since 2000 to see what changes have been made and how all is expected to proceed on Nov. 4.

Critics have long argued that the controversial touch-screen electronic machines, where voters simply touch ballot selections on a screen to choose their candidates, are unreliable and provide no means for a paper trail to manually recount each vote in the event of a problem.

In response to such criticisms, many of those touch-screen machines, also called direct recording electronic (DRE) machines, were modified so that voters received a printout to confirm their choices when casting their ballots.

Other states have made even bigger system changes since the 2004 presidential election, moving away from DREs and replacing them in large part with paper ballot systems that use optical scanners to tally the votes.

Yet no system has proved flawless, as evidenced by August's primary election woes in Palm Beach County, Fla., where optically scanned paper ballots were used to replace what had been touch-screen-only e-voting machines.

While Florida election officials believe that the optical-scanning equipment worked properly, the large number of paper ballots -- 102,523 were cast in the primary -- caused trouble for officials who had to conduct a recount due to a judicial race that was separated by only 17 votes. The closeness of the race triggered a mandatory recount that remains unresolved because of problems in organizing and recounting the ballots.

Overall, the nation has a mosaic of different kinds of voting systems that vary among states, counties and even precincts. Some voting districts use only one type of voting system, such as optically scanned paper ballots or touch screens with or without paper receipts, while many others use combinations of systems.

E-voting watchdog group Verified Voting Inc. provides a state-by-state and locality-by-locality interactive graphic that details the election systems used across the nation. Users can see the types of equipment used, as well as details on systems used by neighboring municipalities.

As the election approaches, here's an update on several states and cities where voting problems have recently been addressed:

Denver Returns to Local Voting Precincts

Two years ago, Denver faced massive problems on Election Day after several key changes were made in how voters cast their ballots.

A countywide electronic poll book containing voter registration information didn't work as designed and was plagued with slow network performance, leading to long lines of frustrated voters. The city and county also moved away from local voting precincts to a model of fewer regional voting centers, which added to the length of the lines. Even the former Denver Election Commission was disbanded and replaced with elected officials in response to the problems of 2006. All voters cast ballots by mail in the 2007 elections while officials worked to create a new system for voting there.

Those issues are behind Denver now, said Alton Dillard, a spokesman for the new Elections Division in the Office of the Clerk and Recorder Stephanie O'Malley. Next month, voters will again cast ballots in 185 neighborhood polling places, instead of the 55 regional vote centers used in 2006.

Denver has also moved from touch-screen machines to optically scanned paper ballots, Dillard said, although one touch-screen machine remains in each polling place to provide access for disabled voters under federal law. The paper ballots will be centrally counted using high-speed model 400C scanners from Sequoia Voting Systems.

A test run was successfully performed with the new system during this year's primary election, Dillard said. Denver expects about 250,000 voters to go to the polls Nov. 4, out of a registered pool of about 390,000 voters.

Ballots cast earlier and sent by mail will be counted ahead of time so they won't have to be tallied on election night, which should speed up the process, Dillard said. "We believe we will have the results by early Wednesday morning," he said. "Our main concern is accuracy over speed and making sure that no one gets disenfranchised in the process."

New York Sticks with Old-Style Levers

New York state voters will use old-fashioned mechanical-lever voting machines for this election because of disputes over certification and who would pay for electronic voting equipment. However, the issues are expected to be resolved by September 2009.

"We're in the process of moving to paper, but not by this election," said Robert Brehm, deputy director of public information for the New York State Board of Elections in Albany. Two e-voting equipment vendors have submitted optical-scan systems for certification, he said, and testing and adjustment procedures are continuing.

"We are working to have them in place in time for next September," Brehm said. For the Nov. 4 election, every New York polling place will have lever machines and modern ballot-marking devices for disabled voters to meet federal laws, he said. The state has just under 6,100 polling places and about 11.5 million registered voters.

Florida Moves to Optical Scanning

After several controversial elections, including the infamous hanging chads of 2000, Florida continues to move to modernize all of its voting systems.

All voting systems in the state will use optically scanned paper ballots for this election under a state law approved last year. The paper ballots and optical-scanning system replace touch-screen machines that were scrapped in about 15 counties because of concerns about reliability, security and accuracy.

Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Kurt Browning, said that each precinct will also have a touch-screen voting machine available for disabled voters. By 2012, all precincts must have a ballot-marking device to allow handicapped voters to use paper ballots that can then be scanned as part of the process, she said.

"We had a very smooth primary," Davis said of the performance of the new voting systems. For the November general election, the state will have vendors deployed across the region with backup machines and technicians in case they're needed, she said.

"We have been communicating with county election supervisors" to be as prepared as possible for Election Day. "We're looking good." The state has about 10.2 million registered voters.

California Has 'Top to Bottom' Review of Voting Systems

This year, the votes of most Californians will be cast on optically scanned paper ballots, replacing a mix of electronic touch-screen machines and paper ballots.

The move follows a massive "top-to-bottom" review of the state's voting systems last year that was ordered by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

The review was conducted because of concerns about touch-screen voting systems, and it uncovered a number of security vulnerabilities, access problems, and accuracy and reliability questions with the machines, said Kate Folmar, a Bowen spokeswoman.

After the review, Bowen decertified several touch-screen models for use in the state, then recertified them after adding security and auditing conditions. The changes were completed by the state's February primary earlier this year. One touch-screen machine will be used in each voting precinct for handicapped voters.

"Secretary Bowen is confident that the election will be more accurate, reliable and secure," Folmar said. "We have had a couple elections now with the paper-based systems, and they've gone smoothly.

"Everyone expects a strong turnout, and the 58 counties have been preparing for that," she said. The state has 16.1 million registered voters.

Ohio Responds to 'EVEREST' Report

After a scathing 86-page report on electronic voting was released last December, it looked like big changes would be coming here.

The "EVEREST" report cited security shortcomings and blamed inefficient electronic systems for long lines at polling places. It recommended that the state move to a centralized counting of ballots and replace all voting machines with paper-based optical-scanning equipment.

The legislature, however, didn't act on those recommendations, so state election officials have been working with what they have, said Jeff Ortega, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

"As you remember, long lines were a hallmark of the 2004 election," Ortega said.

So far in the state, 53 counties use electronic touch-screen machines, while 35 counties have optical-scan voting systems. One new provision is that voters have a choice of voting on paper ballots if they choose not to use a touch-screen machine, Ortega said. Having supplies of paper ballots on hand, can also help prevent long lines at the polls in the event of machine problems or other delays, he said. "If there are machine problems ... voters will be able to keep on voting."

Since the EVEREST report, at least three additional counties -- Cuyahoga, Mercer and Van Wert -- have also moved to optically scanned paper ballots for their elections, Ortega said.

Brunner has also been working on election security for polling places, machines and ballots to improve the state's elections until more can be done to ensure the security and reliability of voting systems, the spokesman said.

During the March presidential primary, 11 counties participated in a pilot program to audit the results of the primary, Ortega said. The plan is to institute the audits statewide for the November election to ensure accuracy.

"Secretary Brunner has never said that electronic touch screens should never be used, but that perhaps there should be another system until the machines can meet the basic security standards that are common in the banking and communications industries," Ortega said.

Meanwhile, Ohio is embroiled in a legal fight with e-voting vendor Premier Election Solutions regarding the vendor's contract performance and problems with dropped votes by the machines in a recent election.

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