Reporter's Notebook: Excitement, Fear on the E-vote Trail

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No one's doubting the outcome of the massive turnout in the U.S. presidential election in Democratic New Jersey, but for some voters and elected officials, e-voting glitches and long lines are undermining confidence in the electoral process.

"Our voting machine is down. It's broken and they don't appear to have a backup machine," said Bill Grafton, an IT professional who was frustrated in his attempt to vote early Tuesday morning on a Sequoia AVC Advantage machine in Maplewood, a leafy suburb 30 minutes from New York City.

Poll workers for the district said they had only 16 emergency ballots and had to turn away voters when they ran out. More ballots were brought, and when the poll workers ran out of those, they ran down the corridor to use an elementary school photocopier to make more ballots.

"I don't have much faith in these machines," said one poll worker.

People are concerned that in all the confusion, ballots will not be tallied correctly.

"There's a huge feeling that our ballots will not be counted," Grafton said. A few dropped votes in a state expected to go for Barack Obama will not make a difference in the presidential election. But it might make a difference to the town's vote on a referendum Grafton is backing, on a project to lay down artificial turf in a local park.

A New Jersey class-action lawsuit involving voting machines was filed in 2004 and charges that direct-recording electronic devices (DREs) with no paper audit possibilities are illegal. The suit cites state law concerning accurate vote counting, but was not resolved before the November elections.

"If there's a problem, there's no paper trail to actually show how people may have voted, unlike the old machines," said David Lyons, a town councilman standing outside a polling station in Irvington, a working-class town bordering Newark. "I've had conversations with people who have told me they were concerned about it. They're concerned that people might be able to hack into them."

Despite such issues, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air.

"I've never seen this kind of crowd, it's exciting to see," said Grafton. "It's gonna be a pretty electric day for everyone in the country."

But lines hundreds of people long put a damper on things for some voters.

"I was in line two hours," said Sylvia Green-Robinson, a retired nurse in Irvington. "This morning everyone came out, the sick, the lame and the lazy!" Still, she would have spent a little extra time to make sure there was a paper trail for her vote. "It's two minutes to do the electronic, so if you have to do the paper I would do it too, to make sure the vote counts."

"The voting machines are OK, but they need more," said Alex Bush, an Irvington retiree. "Later today there's gonna be a mob."

That seemed to be the consensus in a town where exceptionally high turnout was expected because of its African-American population.

"They didn't prepare," said Lyons." I mean this municipality is mostly African-American. I don't know how it is that they didn't prepare for this."

Though there is plenty of security around polling places during Election Day, there is some concern about what happened before the voting, Lyons added.

"As far as what's done here in Irvington I don't see a problem, but I don't know what takes place in the warehouse where [the machines are] normally kept," Lyons said. "That's my concern because once they keep them in the warehouse, if somebody wanted to tamper with the machines they can always do that before they're brought into the municipality."

Ultimately, citizens need to learn from this experience and put pressure on state officials, experts say.

"I think it's important for people to keep their eyes open and recognize that things may go wrong, but I think the most important thing for the typical citizen is to work toward having a better system next time," said Edward Felten, a professor of computer science and director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University in New Jersey. "As we come up on the current election it's too late to change much of anything. But there are a lot of elections down the road that are equally as important to get right, and this is the time to start working to get your public official to adopt a better system."

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