E-Voting Problems Crop Up

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Reports of problems with electronic voting technology cropped up across the country Tuesday, including in the closely contested states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, as millions of U.S. citizens flooded polling places for the country's presidential election.

Malfunctioning machines, ill-trained poll workers, and an inadequate supply of voting terminals were among the problems reported to state election officials and to a host of groups monitoring the election.

The Verified Voting Foundation logged more than 500 reports of problems with electronic voting machines as of 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and more reports were expected from the western United States, according to Will Doherty, executive director of the foundation.

Reports of problems were evenly spread across states leaning toward Democratic challenger John Kerry or toward Republican President George Bush, as well as in states that could go either way, Doherty said from Arlington, Virginia, where Verified Voting set up an "election protection nerve center" that had fielded more than 50,000 calls by midday Tuesday.

Multiple States

In Philadelphia, rumors spread quickly that electronic voting machines were showing vote totals before the start of counting on Tuesday, prompting state Republican party officials to cry foul and threaten litigation. According to Kenneth Rapp, deputy secretary for regulatory programs for Pennsylvania, those reports were false: Observers had misinterpreted an odometer-style vote counter that records all votes cast on each machine and is not reset for each election, Rapp said.

On the other hand, at least four polling places in Philadelphia reported the malfunctioning of older voting machines from Danaher Controls, Doherty said.

In Columbus, Ohio, overcharged batteries on Danaher Controls Electronic 1242 systems kept machines from booting up properly at the beginning of the day. Election workers quickly resolved the problem, and brought the systems online. No polling place had to suspend voting because of the problem, said Jeff La Rue, a spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections.

In Louisiana, state election officials received about 200 complaints of problems with machines, including two confirmed reports of Sequoia AVC Advantage voting machines voting machines in New Orleans Parish that were not working, according to Scott Madere, press secretary for the Louisiana Secretary of State. New Orleans has about 800 electronic voting machines in use, he said.

Also in Louisiana, problems arose with Election Systems & Software (ES&S) IVotronic machines after officials improperly formatted ballots so that systems labeled nonprovisional ballots as provisional, and vice versa, Madere said. Provisional ballots are being given to voters whose registration is found to be in doubt when they go to vote.

The formatting problem will not affect how votes were recorded, and poll workers were instructed to tell voters to fill out the ballots as-is. Election officials will be able to discern the difference between the two groups because there will be far fewer provisional ballots, Madere said.

Human Error

Poll-worker training was an issue in Louisiana and other states, according to those interviewed.

In Louisiana, some polling commissioners were not adequately trained to set "lockouts" on electronic voting machines for first-time voters unable to prove their identities at the polls. Under the Help America Vote Act of 2002 , each such voter must cast a paper provisional ballot for federal offices until their identity can be confirmed. State laws don't bar such voters from casting ballots for state and local races. Voting machines must be configured to lock out votes for federal offices, but to allow them to cast other votes, Madere said. The confusion over lockouts may have led some voters to conclude that voting machines were being tampered with or that the machines were preventing them from voting for president, he said.

In other parts of the country, high voter turnout overwhelmed polling places that had just a few voting machines.

In Lake County, Ohio, voters were waiting for 15 to 20 minutes to vote Tuesday morning--a rarity in the county--because there were too few Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. AVC Advantage electronic voting machines to accommodate a voter turnout expected to approach 80 percent, said Linda Hlebak, deputy director of elections for Lake County in Painesville, Ohio.

"We knew we didn't have enough. But we could have doubled the number of machines and still not had enough," Hlebak said.

In other parts of the country, including parts of heavily populated Florida, New York, and California, wait times reached an hour or more in some cases.

But in Florida, where the 2000 election turned into a long-running drama that the U.S. Supreme Court eventually decided, no widespread e-voting problems were evident by late afternoon in Miami Dade County or Palm Beach County, said Matthew Zimmerman, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, who is monitoring the situation with other volunteers in Miami.

Election officials agreed that strong emotions surrounding this year's presidential election and heightened media attention over voter fraud elevated voter sensitivity toward anything out of the ordinary.

"These folks are contacting the media as rapidly as they're contacting [state election officials], so reports of voting machine problems are getting out there right away," Madere said.

Juan Carlos Perez of IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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