E-voting: Room for Improvement

Tuesday's U.S. election may not be long remembered for widespread problems with voting systems, but there were at least scattered reports of problems with touch-screen or optical-scan voting machines, many compounded by record turnouts in some jurisdictions.

Amid those scattered, if not widespread, reports of problems with electronic voting, critics of e-voting machines said there's still work that can be done to improve the voting process and voting technology. And the nation's top election official said she's confident that voting systems can be improved and that elections can run more smoothly.

The U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), established by the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), hopes to start certifying e-voting machines next year, said Rosemary Rodriguez, chairwoman of the EAC. The EAC launched a new program to certify the integrity of e-voting machines early in 2007, and some e-voting machine vendors have complained that the commission is moving too slowly to certify machines.

Six e-voting vendors have pending applications for certification, with the earliest application in February 2007, and the EAC hasn't yet certified any of them. But Rodriguez said the EAC is taking its time to make sure its certification program is extensive and focused on the right things. "We're not going to apologize for being thorough," Rodriguez said in an interview.

There were early reports of voting machine breakdowns in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with touch-screen machines having problems in some areas and optical-scan machines with problems in other areas. There were also reports of voter databases not being up to date in Ohio and other states.

Generally, local voting officials seem to have been prepared for large turnouts and potential problems, Rodriguez said. However, there is room for improvement, and one of the EAC's focuses next year will be on voting machine certification, she said.

It may not be realistic to "expect perfection," she said. "It may never be perfect, but it will not be for lack of trying on our part."

E-voting vendors played down the reports of machine problems Tuesday. "It is an exceedingly quiet day for our team," said Michelle Shafer, vice president of communications and external affairs at Sequoia Voting Systems.

Some election observers seem to want a level of perfection that's not possible, added David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade group representing e-voting vendors.

"We are not seeing widespread problems with any of the voting machines themselves," he said. "Every election is going to have its own individual challenges, but today's election is performing very well regardless of the doomsday expectations bantered about within the press. One thing to point out is that a few reports have focused on issues that pertain to the ballot layout and setup of contests rather than the performance of the machines themselves."

Asked if Congress should enact new standards for e-voting, Beirne disagreed. First, the EAC needs to act on the certification applications it has, he said.

"Congress and policy-makers can adopt as many requirements for standards as they like, but until such time that they recognize the challenges the industry is facing with our ability to certify current product upgrades, it makes no difference how many versions of new voting system standards are mandated if we are unable to bring those new products to the marketplace," Beirne said.

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