U.S. history is filled with too-close to-call elections and voting systems snafus, from the “hanging chad” in the 2000 presidential recount to the inscrutable “Lizard People” ballot from the months-long recount of the 2008 Minnesota Senate race that eventually seated Sen. Al Franken.
It's also highly likely that in this year's election, there will be more close elections — and more election technology that will fail to perform as designed, according to a new report by the Veritable Voting Foundation, the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic and Common Cause.
The report, released Wednesday (July 25), found a mixed bag of voting technology preparedness. Five states — Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin — were rated best prepared to handle problems on election day and protect voters. Six states — Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — were found to be the least-prepared. The other states fell somewhere in the middle of voting-day readiness.
Voting machines will inevitably fail at some point, the report says, and it is up to election officials to ensure that there are backup plans in place so that each vote will be counted as cast.
In 2009, for example, a software malfunction in a county election in South Dakota added thousands of fake votes, the report found. Meanwhile, a glitch in the software allotted votes to the wrong candidate in the wrong contest in Palm Beach County, Florida. In 2010, election officials conducted a test-run before a primary and found that hackers were able to change the votes.
“Problems happen each election,” says Pamela Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation. “If there is one that is potentially outcome changing, can we recover from that problem? That's always the question.”
According to Smith, the report evaluated each state's readiness and resiliency based on five criteria: Does the state require paper ballots or records of every vote; does the state have adequate contingency plans at each polling place; does the state protect military and overseas voting by ensuring that marked ballots are not cast online; has the state instituted a post-election audit of electronic balloting; and does the state use ballot reconciliation and tabulation practices to ensure that no ballots are lost or added during the tallying process.
Sixteen states received poor grades because they use paperless machines in some or all of their precincts. Twenty states won good grades for their electronic overseas balloting because they prohibit the electronic return of marked ballots over the Internet and require that an original paper ballot be returned.
The report also recommended best practices for election officials: For overseas and military balloting, voters should be required to return the physical ballot; in the case of a recount, there's physical evidence of the voter's intent, Smith says. The report also recommends that polling places incorporate or use a voter-marked paper ballot. For voters with disabilities, there should be electronic balloting with an accessible interface and the ballot should be able to be printed for verification, she says.
Some states that were graded poorly were close to receiving a good grade, Smith says. Colorado, she says, recently passed a good election audit law and has paper ballots in almost all jurisdictions. But unfortunately, they still have some paperless voting machines and therefore cannot conduct a statewide audit or a recount, she says.
"We're not trying to say this state is going to have a meltdown,” Smith says. “This is not a critique of election officials.”