Reports of problems with electronic voting technology cropped up across the USA yesterday, including the key states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, as millions of US citizens flooded polling centres for the country's presidential election.
Reports of malfunctioning machines, ill-trained poll workers and an inadequate supply of voting terminals were some of 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 pm EST, and more reports were expected from the west of the country according to Will Doherty, executive director of the foundation.
Reports of problems were evenly spread across states leaning either toward Democratic challenger John Kerry or 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 centre" that fielded more than 50,000 calls by midday yesterday.
In Philadelphia, rumours 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. Those reports were false because observers misinterpreted an odometer-style vote counter that records all votes cast on each machine and is not reset for each election, said Kenneth Rapp, deputy secretary for regulatory programs for Pennsylvania.
However, at least four polling centres in Philadelphia reported malfunctioning of older voting machines manufactured by 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 those systems were brought online. No polling centres 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 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.
Additional problems with Election Systems & Software (ES&S) iVotronic machines occurred in Louisiana after officials improperly formatted ballots so that systems labelled non-provisional ballots as provisional and vice versa, he said. Provisional ballots are 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.
Poll-worker training was also 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 (HAVA), such a 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 about 15 or 20 minutes to vote Tuesday morning – a rarity in the county – because there were not enough Sequoia AVC Advantage electronic voting machines to accommodate a voter turnout that was 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," she said.
In other parts of the country, including heavily populated Florida, New York and California, wait times were an hour or longer.
But in Florida, where the 2000 election turned into a long-running drama that eventually was decided by the US Supreme Court, there did not appear to be widespread e-voting problems 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.
The two main problems in those counties, which were at the centre of the 2000 election controversy, have been incorrect votes being recorded by the machines and detected by voters when examining the ballot review screen; and the unwillingness of election officials to resort to paper ballots in precincts with long lines to alleviate the demand for the touch-screen machines.
"We're getting a number of cases where people are calling saying their votes got changed on the review screen. That's been the primary machine issue that's going on," he said. "The counties have continued to refuse to let people vote on paper ballots. The problem is people are still waiting in lines that are far too long and some of them are leaving."
Election officials agreed that strong emotions surrounding this year's presidential election and heightened media attention over voter fraud elevated voter sensitivity to anything out of the ordinary.
Despite some "kinks" as voting commenced Tuesday morning, reports of problems were expected to dwindle as the day continued, he said.
"We haven't had any precincts shut down because of voting machine problems. There have been some procedural problems, but nothing that would jeopardise the integrity of the election," he said.
Doherty at Verified Voting disagreed.
"We're seeing a widespread pattern of failures with electronic voting machines. Basically, in at least half the states with e-voting technology there are reports of problems with these machines," he said.
Voters who are using electronic voting machines should review their ballots carefully before casting them. If voters encounter problems, they should request that the machine be taken out of service and ask for a paper ballot, he said.