Electronic Voting Machines: Is Your Vote Counted?

Student readings explore problems with these machines in the 2006 election and proposals for reform. Suggestions for inquiry and citizenship follow.

There is no more vital guarantee in a democracy than that each qualified voter who appears at the polls on an election day will be able to voteâ€"and that this vote will be recorded and counted accurately. But since the Florida 2000 presidential vote, this guarantee has been a national issue. It has also been a local issue, as problems have emerged with various voting technologies, including direct recording electronic machines (on which voters use a touch screen) and optical scanning machines (which read marks on a paper ballot).

Two student readings below discuss major problems with these machines in the 2006 congressional election. Another reading details proposals for reform. Suggestions for inquiry and citizenship follow. Teachers may also find useful "Election Troubles: Gerrymandering, DREs & the Money Chase" on this website.


Student Reading 1:

Problems at the Polls

The 2006 election "had voters across the country once again asking why voting machines are so lousy," wrote Adam Cohen in the New York Times ("What's Wrong With My Voting Machine?" 12/4/06). "Their technology is similar to ATM technology, but when was the last time your ATM flipped a $200 withdrawal into a $200 deposit?" he asked, after a hands-on review of five electronic machines.

Randy Wooten and his wife Roxanne might have asked instead, "When was the last time your ATM waved a wand over your $200 deposit and made it disappear?" When the Wootens finished voting on election day, they figured that Randy had at least two votes their own. He was running for mayor of Waldenberg, Arkansas, population of 80, with 36 registered voters. But after votes were counted, the Wootens were more than surprised to learn that each of the two other candidates had 18 votes, and Randy had none. (www.computerworld.com,11/14/06)

In the 2000 presidential election, old-fashioned punch-card voting at many Florida voting sites led to great confusion about who many citizens had voted for. The confusion contributed to a highly controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision that made George W. Bush president.

Two years later, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to avoid such situations and to promote computerized voting. More than half of the states now have the new machines in one of two basic models "touch screen" and "optical scan."

But it is these machines that caused new controversy in the elections of 2006.

In a Texas district, each vote was counted three times. Denver officials estimated that 20,000 of its citizens didn't vote at all because poorly designed software was causing delays in checking people's registration status.

Other problems on Election Day 2006 included:

  • Machines that recorded a vote incorrectly losing it, adding to it, subtracting it, or giving it to the wrong candidate
  • Machines that didn't start immediately or that broke down during the election
  • Technician shortages at polls to troubleshoot
  • Absence of a paper record to check vote accuracy
  • Unavailability of "source code" to check for software problems
  • Machines that were open to being hacked or reprogrammed
  • Possible disappearance of 18,000 votes

Florida, Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania had the highest number of complaints about electronic voting machines. But tens of thousands of other voters in more than 25 states also had problems. "Still," the New York Times reported, an association of top state election officials concluded that for the most part, voting went as smoothly as expected." (11/26/06)

But Times reporter Adam Cohen found disturbing problems when he tried out the five electronic voting machines that New York City was considering to replace its old machines. He reported:

  • Parts of words cut off
  • Paper records that fall into a bag that could easily be stolen
  • Candidates' names scattered all over the ballot
  • A machine that jammed twice when fed an electronic ballot

New York's official testing agencies ultimately declared that none of the five machines "including touch-screens produced by Avante and Sequoia and optical scanners by Sequoia, Diebold, and Election Systems and Software" fully met the state's standards.

The New York Times reported after the 2006 elections: "Accusations of missing ballots and vote stuffing were not uncommon with mechanical voting machines. But election experts say that with electronic machines, the potential consequences of misdeeds or errors are of a greater magnitude. A single software error can affect thousands of votes, especially with machines that keep no paper record." (11/26/06)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Can you think of any voting method that does not have the potential for problems, including falsification of results? Discuss with specifics.

3. "But election experts say that with electronic machines, the potential consequence of misdeeds or error are of a greater magnitude." Why?


Student Reading 2:

More Problems at the Polls

On Election Day 2006, Jorge Hernandez was about to vote in the Sarasota County, Florida, congressional race between Vern Buchanan and Christine Jennings, when he noticed that the touch-screen was suddenly blank. He asked a poll worker to correct the problem. He then proceeded to vote with no further problems. ( Sarasota Herald-Tribune , www.heraldtribune.com, 11/19/06)

Voter Tom Mawn said "everything seemed to work fine until he reached the end of the process and was told his congressional vote had not been recorded." Voter John Minder discovered that after he "finished voting on other races, his congressional vote was no longer there." Carol Fisch found that her summary page showed no vote had been cast in the congressional race. "She revoted but now is concerned that her second vote was not counted." These and similar problems were revealed during a hearing conducted by the People for the American Way Foundation. (www.pfaw.org, 11/16/06)

According to a survey of 300 voters by the Herald-Tribune , the most common problem with the touch screens manufactured by Election Systems and Software (ES&S) came when voters "touched a candidate's name, only to find that their vote hadn't registered on the ballot review page that appears before submitting the vote." Most caught the mistake; 34 didn't "because they felt rushed" or didn't know how to handle the problem. Dozens of others said they never saw the congressional race listed on the ballot. Some left without voting. The ES&S machines were the same that produced no votes for Randy Wooten in Arkansas and triple votes in Texas.

ES&S spokeswoman Jill Friedman-Wilson said, "It's been, all things considered, a smooth day. When you look at the scale and the scope of this election, what you're seeing are problems you would expect."

In Sarasota County, Buchanan, the Republican, won over Democrat Jennings by an official 369 votes. But 18,000 of the ballots "representing 13 percent of the voters" contained no vote for either candidate in the race. After learning of machine problems, Jennings filed a legal challenge to the results and called for a new election.

Jennings and others also demanded that ES&S hand over for examination the "source code" running its machines. They claimed that without it computer experts could not determine if there had been a software problem. In a hearing before a circuit judge, the company refused, arguing that to do so would reveal trade secrets and expose it to serious financial harm. A computer expert testifying for Jennings said it was "statistically unlikely" that 13 percent of Sarasota County voters skipped the vote for their congressional representative. But in ruling against Jennings on the source code issue, the judge found that such testimony was based on "speculation" and was "not supported by credible evidence." ( Miami Herald , www.miami.com, 12/29/06)

Although Buchanan was sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives, a House committee is investigating the Sarasota situation. Jennings appealed the source code issue to a higher court. Another court will determine whether there should be a new election.

Sarasota was not the only Florida county to question the performance of ES&S "iVotronic" machines. In Charlotte, Lee, and Sumter counties, a total of more than 40,000 voters seemed not to have voted in an attorney-general contest. This result would have gotten the same scrutiny that the Buchanan-Jennings had if one candidate hadn't trounced the other by a margin of 250,000 votes.

"The iVotronic was the first touch-screen voting device officially certified for use in the state of Florida, and its innovative technology enables all voters," especially those visually impaired, "to easily and correctly cast their vote in complete privacy," ES&S announced on its website.

ES&S is the country's biggest supplier of election hardware and software, and its machines are in 43 states representing 67 million registered voters. The company was pleased with its 2006 Election Day performance: "Overall the voting equipment functioned well. As would be expected in an election of this size, some issues did arise; and, when they did, ES&S worked with our customers to resolve the issues quickly and efficiently, so the election process could continue." (www.essvote.com)

Jorge Rodriguez might agree. Tom Mawn, John Minder, and Carol Fisch would probably disagree. Randy and Roxanne Wooten certainly would. And Christine Jennings is suing.

Governor Charlie Crist announced plans to discard the touch-screen voting machines that many Florida counties installed to solve the multiple voting problems revealed in the controversial 2000 presidential election. The Florida legislature is expected to approve spending $32.5 million to replace them with paper ballots counted by optical-scan machines used in more than half the states.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is suspicious about the fact that 18,000 Sarasota County voters do not seem to have voted in their congressional contest? What other explanation might there be besides a problem with the machines?

3. Why doesn't ES&S want to have its software examined by independent experts? What do you think of the ES&S position and why?


Student Reading 3:

Fixing the Problems

Since the Florida voting disaster more than six years ago, technological researchers at various companies have worked to produce reliable and secure electronic voting machines. The federal government has spent $4 billion on them. But voters across the country still cannot be 100 percent certain that their votes will count.

"Voting machines, unlike home electronics, are not sold in a competitive consumer market, which is ruthlessly unforgiving of low quality," New York Times reporter Adam Cohen wrote. "The officials who buy them generally do not know much about technology. They listen to sales pitches from vendors who relentlessly push the most expensive models. Sometimes, well-connected lobbyists apply pressure. The process is rife with conflict of interest, from free meals to future jobs with manufacturers."

Quality control is another problem. In January 2007, the New York Times reported that "a laboratory that has tested most of the nation's electronic voting systems has been temporarily barred from approving new machines after federal officials found that it was not following its quality-control procedures and could not document that it was conducting all the required tests."

The company in question is Ciber Inc. of Colorado. "Experts say the deficiencies of the laboratory suggest that crucial features like the vote-counting software and security against hacking may not have been thoroughly tested on many machines now in use," the Times reported. "Little has been disclosed about any flaws that were discovered." Some have questioned whether there is a conflict of interest for companies like Ciber, since they are hired by the machine manufacturers to test their own voting software and hardware. And, some have asked, why hasn't there been more oversight of this issue by the federal Election Assistance Commission? (New York Times , 1/4/07)

Most voting rights advocates agree about what's needed to ensure reliable elections:

  • Voters must be able to verify and, if necessary, correct their votes.
  • Machines must produce a paper trail that includes: a) a paper record for voters to check their choices and b) a paper running tally to check the vote count made by a machine's software.
  • Machine software must be disclosed to and certified by the Election Assistance Commission and other measures must be taken to prevent technological manipulation. All of these actions should be made public.
  • Conflicts of interest must be prevented-including for the laboratories hired to test products and for chief election officials who also serve in political campaigns.

In the House of Representatives, Rush Holt (D-NJ), and in the Senate, Diane Feinstein (D-CA), have introduced bills including such measures.

But some issues still need to be resolved. Manufacturers of the new machines still refuse to turn over their software for examination. A number of states have already purchased machines that do not produce paper trails, and they may need funds to buy printers. And unfortunately, even voter-verified paper records can be lost, damaged, even stolen.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What criticisms does New York Times reporter Adam Cohen make about how new voting machines are purchased?

3. What problems of conflict of interest are there in purchasing and testing machines?

4. What reforms do you think are needed to ensure that every vote counts? Would you add or subtract any of the measures suggested by voting rights advocates? Why?

For inquiry and citizenship

What, if anything, do students know about the voting machines used in their own district? Organize an inquiry that enables students to inform themselves about those machines and any problems with them. Have them examine the literature on the subject, interview election and other public officials, read any public reports in newspapers or elsewhere, and then present their findings to the class for discussion.

If students identify serious problems, they might develop a campaign to inform other students as well as parents and the wider community about what needs to be done and why. Leaflets, pamphlets, letters to the editor of the local newspaper, programs on local access TV, the establishment of a website, and speaking at a town council meeting are some of the possibilities for student action.

Students will find detailed analyses of voting machine problems and proposed remedies at the following nonpartisan and nonprofit sites:

The websites of the two most prominent manufacturers:

The websites of the two sponsors of reform legislation:

  • Congressman Rush Holt (www.holt.house.gov, website no longer active)
  • Senator Diane Feinstein (www.feinstein.senate.gov)

Additional inquiries

  • HAVA and how it has been carried out
  • The Florida 2000 presidential election, problems and political action associated with it, and the controversial Supreme Court decision
  • Follow up on the Sarasota County issues and the Arkansas vote

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org