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Electronic voting lingers on

I voted earlier today, and I'd like to think that it was the last time I had to deal with an electronic voting machine. But knowing how long old software and hardware can stay in service in large bureaucracies, I fear that I'll have the same experience next year. And the year after that. And the year after that ...

My gripes about the e-voting machines used in Arlington should be familiar to regular readers. (Disclosure: My wife works in the county's IT department but has no involvement with elections or voter registration.) Ever since my first experience with these WinVote terminals in 2005, I've resented the casual idiocy on display in their interface: When you select a candidate, his or her name appears in red with a red X to the right--what you'd expect to see after picking somebody you wanted to vote against -- and not the more logical indicator of a check mark.

In the real world, I doubt too many voters are confused by this. But why did the company behind these machines -- formerly Advanced Voting Solutions, now Elections USA, Inc. -- flub such an easy thing to get right? What did they miss in the parts of the machine I can't see when I cast a vote?

(If you require further cause for concern about these folks' computing competency, note the horrific ugliness and general uselessness of their current and old Web sites. Would you hire somebody whose résumé looked that bad?)

Even the best e-voting interface can't overcome the generic flaws of commercial electronic voting systems: the closed-source code that governments and citizens can't inspect for flaws, the lack of a separate record that can be audited in a recount, the inability of voters to verify that their choices were recorded accurately.

As a result, in 2008, Virginia and Maryland each voted to end their experiments with electronic voting and return to machines that generate paper records. But while Maryland is supposed to complete that switch by the 2010 elections, Virginia cities and counties face no deadline to retire e-voting systems; they simply have to buy paper-based ones the next time around.

Considering the tight budget situation at every level of government in Virginia, that means you may see me to write a version of this entry every November for quite a few years to come. I'm afraid that e-voting has become the government equivalent of that aging PC at the office running the same old installation of Windows 2000 and the same old copy of Internet Explorer 6, which nobody ever seems to get around to upgrading.

What's the state of your voting system today? Post your critique in the comments ...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 3, 2009; 1:46 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , Policy and politics  
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If McLean, in Fairfax County, it was a color-in-the-oval paper ballot.

Posted by: wiredog | November 3, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

I too voted today in Fairfax County and was poll watching for 2 hours as well. All the convenient parking at Claremont School was taken by parent-teacher conference cars, there for a meeting. Only when I complained were spots reserved for voters, as should have happened when the polls opened.

The electronic voting machines broke down repeatedly until they abandoned them and all voting had to be done by paper ballots. I was there at a slack hour but it will be chaos late today when working people try to vote on their way home.

Posted by: Johntbennett02 | November 3, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

In Montgomery County, I never had a problem with the electronic voting machines. They were laid out fairly reasonably and coherently, and easy to navigate. Of course, I never had a problem with their old punch ballots either, but could see how "hanging chads" might be left, or punching between the proper spaces. No system is foolproof, since fools are very ingenious.

I would vote for electronic machines that gives a paper receipt which could be tallied if there is a problem. Just as credit card receipts print out 2 copies, let the electronic voting machines use the same technology. Why re-invent the wheel?

Posted by: DrBones721 | November 3, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

I agree electronic voting is not ready for prime time. These machines should provide a paper trail, and it seems they still do not. And, if you are going to have a paper trail, why not just do paper ballots with optical scanning?

I also agree the old and new web sites for that voting machine is pretty bad.

Posted by: jethro1 | November 3, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

I looked at the websites that you suggested. Any system that allows the results to be transferred to/from a USB flash drive surely can't be for real. At the very least, make it a propriety form factor (Sony Memory stick type unit/ compact flash, etc), not a USB drive for goodness sake.

The design of the ballot should not be up to just one person. It should have to go through an iterative process, with input from a number of people to make sure it works easily and correctly.

Posted by: blasher | November 3, 2009 6:26 PM | Report abuse

I voted in Fairfax County. There were no electronic voting machines in sight (I last saw one this summer when voting in a primary). I voted on a paper ballot that was then scanned by machine. For the same reasons you cited above, I prefer paper ballots. I'm happy that my precinct appears to have shifted away from touchscreen voting.

Posted by: bokamba | November 3, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse

Optical scanners in Loudoun For The Win.

Best of both worlds. The immediacy of the electronic tally, with the backup of a paper ballot. Easy UI as well. Done.

Posted by: JkR- | November 3, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse

Falls Church had electronic...ok to use but, it was not easy for folks to see there was a second page to the ballot. I understand some were upset to realize they had not voted for candidates on the second page. I wonder how many never realized it at all?

Posted by: tbva | November 3, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

I didn't vote today. I live in DC. We vote by filling in the boxes on a stiff paper. The VOTER inserts it into the scanner. If you overvote or undervote, the scanner rejects the ballot and you get to try again. Brilliant! (Much better than never knowing there is another screenful of voting.)

After the polls close, the memory cartridges are taken downtown to be tallied. This should take a couple of hours if all goes well.

If it doesn't go well, the stiff paper ballots can be counted by hand the old way. What's not to like?

DC also has touch screen voting for the handicapped. I hate that. I would rather have a trusted friend fill in a paper ballot for me.

Posted by: SoloOwl | November 3, 2009 10:11 PM | Report abuse

So it is 2009 and we are now reverting to paper ballots very similar to what was used in 1809. This is pathetic. Why not fix the alleged flaws, if any, in electronic voting instead of going Full Williamsburg? Somehow this new-fangled touch screen technology is used in ATM machines, grocery stores, restaurants, cell phones and in thousands of other applications every day by the public without any major failures that I have heard of. I don't think anyone wants to go back to paper for these applications and I see no rationale for doing it for voting either. Florida had a paper trail too in 2000 and it was a complete fiasco. How about ballots that have lines outside the ovals and are put into OCR machines upside down. Having voting officials examine and put paper ballots in OCR machines violates secret ballot requirements. Virginia has had mechanical and electronic voting machines for 50 years without any major problems. Going backward to paper ballots is absurd.

Posted by: Djones121 | November 3, 2009 10:37 PM | Report abuse

hard to hack paper machines, hanging chads and all. LOL

Posted by: | November 4, 2009 2:04 AM | Report abuse

Voting is swell!
We vote by mail.

Posted by: query0 | November 4, 2009 3:31 AM | Report abuse

Agreed about the Arlington voting machines, Rob. Surprising given how the county talks about embracing technology. In the presidential race, there was a clear option for a paper ballot, but no one mentioned it nor were there any signs to this effect at my polling place yesterday.

Posted by: nashpaul | November 4, 2009 6:34 AM | Report abuse

As usual, you have the story wrong. The WinVote machines have now been in use in both Arlington and Fairfax for 5 years, and sadly they are begiining to show wear and tear. Contrary to your opinion, most of the voters yesterday in Fairfax County expressed some anger over the Legislature-mandated switch to paper ballots. When they were purchased, they were state-of-the-art, and for three years, Fairfax was able to get parts and service for the machines.
Certain members of the State Legislature managed to convince their colleagues that there was something wrong with electronic voting, and Fairfax was forced to drop any plans to continue working forward to carefully maintaining the hardware, and updating the software. (Incidentally, making any changes to the software requires months of tests and approvals by the state, before they could be implemented, and Fairfax had a list of software updates to be made by the manufacturer.) Because of the freeze over ANY purchase or software upgrade of the electronic equipment these had to be dropped.
The WinVote machines have been extremely reliable and accurate, but they like the Election Officers, are getting old. The voters are not being best served by reverting to paper ballots, and we heard their complaints all day yesterday.

Posted by: MostlyEditor | November 4, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Here in suburban New York, we're still using the ancient, beloved, mechanical machines. Not a glitch in any of them. There's one e-machine for handicapped voters, with questionable privacy. Sadly, I was told that next year we'll all be using electronic machines.

Posted by: Fred34 | November 4, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

We have been using electronic voting machines in NJ for years and I have no issue with them. Some people with weight problems have trouble closing the curtain behind them, notably the new governor-elect. Perhaps this is one of the "sweeping changes" he is going to make.

Posted by: NJAnalyst | November 4, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Rural midwest, we use scanning equipment. We vote on paper (like taking a test in school), it is scanned into the equipment, you see right away that your ballot was valid, and they have a paper trail with no hanging chads. Maybe it's too simple.

For those who think voting early by mail is the way to go, I offer NY 23. If you voted a week before the election for the Republican candidate, you wasted your vote and lost the chance to vote for one of the two eventual candidates. New facts could come out in any election that could make you regret your decision to vote early!

Posted by: dnfree | November 4, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

"Even the best e-voting interface can't overcome the generic flaws of commercial electronic voting systems: the closed-source code that governments and citizens can't inspect for flaws, the lack of a separate record that can be audited in a recount, the inability of voters to verify that their choices were recorded accurately."

The propietary code is the least of ones worries... It is the underlying Operating System and services that are at risk due to not keeping up with vendor patches and not locking the machines down according to industry standards. Something that the Government is already addressing through standards such as FISMA and DIACAP and NSSI 1253.

I am not against e-voting, but I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into vote yesterday in McLean to find there were no machines set up, just a pen and a simple form to fill out.

Until the use, security and review process of e-voting machines has been addressed in this state, I would much prefer paper and pencil to ensure accuracy.

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | November 4, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Voted in Alexandria - requested e-voting machine instead of paper ballot. To me, it's quicker and less messy and I, perhaps naively, trust them fine.

Posted by: wwc4g | November 4, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for this article.

I'm not surprised that many people are unaware of the vulnerabilities of these machines to tampering, but it is astounding how many people are willing to rely on a black box to count their votes.

Stalin famously said that the people who cast the votes decide nothing; those who count the votes decide everything. It is those machines that count the votes, and if they cannot be audited, voters never know whether or not their votes have been accurately counted.

Posted by: stokescorrales | November 4, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Rob, in the Peoples' Republic of Arlington it doesn't matter what type of voting system you use, as the results are always so slanted towards the Democrats (in many cases there isn't even any republican opposition) that there is never a closely contested race anyway. I suppose in a closely contested statewide race it could matter, but within Arlington this is a non-issue.

Posted by: alrob8 | November 4, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Glad to see this got some attention on a busy couple of news days...

* blasher: Good point about ballot interface design, as states seem to get that wrong distressingly often. See this blog post by Jakob Nielsen about a real screw-up in Florida--no, not in 2000, only three years ago.

* JkR: That's my preferred system as well. You get both fast, automated counting and human oversight.

* Djones121: Your "this works in ATMs just fine" argument doesn't work here--in all those other systems, the user can see if the touch screen yielded the desired output and has some sort of recourse if it doesn't.

* MostlyEditor: How, in a post that doesn't even mention any other cities or counties in Virginia but Arlington, do you get the idea that I said anything about what voters in Fairfax think?

* alrob8: We have these things called primary elections in Arlington too.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | November 4, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I am lucky to live in Loudoun County where they use paper ballots. I had no trouble voting and I left a paper trail.

Posted by: JohnS8 | November 4, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

"(If you require further cause for concern about these folks' computing competency, note the horrific ugliness and general uselessness of their current and old Web sites. Would you hire somebody whose résumé looked that bad?)"

Wow. That's a pretty bold thing to say. But, yep, click on the "current" link! How lame!

Posted by: Texan7 | November 4, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Pegoraro, good article. The story with AVS and Elections USA is more subtle - AVS went chapter 7, and Elections USA, which is the same people, bought the assets - cute way to dump the debts.

@DrBones721, this technology was tried elsewhere in the country, and didn't work well. People didn't check the paper, and the printers kept jamming, and recounting didn't work because of the poor paper quality.

@SoloOwl, I'm a fan of optical scan too, but all voters should have the right to a private ballot without having to rely on a friend or spouse.

@Djones121, if you think the WinVote machines work, take a look at the Mar 2009 special election in Fairfax, where one of the machines reported more votes than there were voters in the precinct (twice as many if you account for the other machine in the precinct) - a problem that is unexplained (and Fairfax declined to investigate). Search for more info.

@MostlyEditor, the WinVote machines (according to Virginia law) would require Federal certification before they could be updated, but the company was kicked out of the certification program because of an alleged breach of contract between AVS and the testing lab. See . Additionally, the AVS machines don't meet current standards - they are only allowed because they're grandfathered in.

@NJAnalyst, take a look at the 2008 presidential primary, where some machines in NJ reported clearly incorrect results, and a lawsuit showing massive security problems was the outcome.

There's lots more to say, but I don't want to monopolize this space. Happy to discuss these issues with anyone interested - post a message back to this board and I'll get you my contact info. I helped write the legislation that banned purchase of more DREs, and I've been researching voting system issues for 5 years.

Posted by: JeremyInFairfax | November 4, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I share concern over the electronic machines. In my county in Clarion, Pennsylvania we have had numerous complaints of vote flipping (the voter touches the candidate and the "X" flips to a different candidate). My computer "geek" friends tell me it would be very easy to write a program to manipulate these machines. The politicians in charge of choosing these machines refuse to modify them for a paper record and refuse to stop using them. I wonder why? I fear people don't realize with no check and balance on these machines we are heading down the road to losing our democracy. Those who control the machines dictates who rules. Isn't that a dictatorship?

Posted by: dmcrcylost | November 4, 2009 8:00 PM | Report abuse

I worked as a judge in Loudoun this year and last year. We give voters an option between paper and touch screen. The machines are in each precinct to help those that need a large text ballot or to have it spoken to them.

About 60% of ballots in my precinct were cast on paper. This was mainly due to speed and ease of use. We explain to each voter how to use the touch screen. Paper was self explanatory. There are privacy covers that a voter can use if they don't want their ballot to be seen by an election officer.

Last year, paper ballots allowed us to have more than 20 people voting concurrently (vs. 8 in my parents' Potomac, MD precinct). After 9:30 am last year, there was no line to vote.

With all of the concerns about auditability, the biggest advantage to voters is time. If more people vote because it's easy to do, then that's money and resources well spent.

Posted by: dannews | November 5, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

* JeremyInFairfax: Would enjoy chatting about this offline. I'm at

* dannews: Thanks for the report from the field.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | November 10, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

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