Voters Face Technical Difficulties at the Booth

Unless you live in a small town in rural America, you probably haven't seen a wooden ballot box or pull-lever machine at a voting booth in years. They were pushed aside years ago by voting machines and computer programs. Even though they're supposed to make voting easier and more reliable, there seems to be a never-ending series of problems with the new technologies.

Problems at the Booth

There are plenty of reports, new and old, from all over the US showing some of the problems related to voting machines and other electronic voting systems:

  • In early October, the District of Columbia's new internet-based e-voting system was infiltrated by hackers. DC wanted to test the system before the November elections and invited hackers to attack the system, and they did. Several hackers were able change votes and went undetected for several days
  • In New York, again just weeks before the November elections, there were all sorts of problems with the voting machines that replaced the state's old mechanical lever machines. Problems ranged from paper jams and malfunctions to ballots left in plain sight of poll workers
  • Just in time for November, part of a 2008 Ohio lawsuit was settled over the state's voting machines. There were problems with counting and tabulating votes in the 2008 national election

The Law

The US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) makes sure voting systems and equipment are reliable. It developed a set of standards or guidelines for security and functionality. However, it's a voluntary certification program. The states aren't required to participate or have the EAC certify their voting systems.

Nonetheless, many states participate in the EAC's program or have laws that closely mirror the EAC's guidelines. That's because the Help America Vote Act of 2002 gives the states financial assistance to move away from paper punch-card voting systems.

Each state's laws are different, but Ohio and New York are good examples of what most states require:

  • Testing and certification of voting machines and systems, usually by the state's board of election, secretary of state, or state comptroller
  • Decertification of machines or systems that malfunction, produce unreliable results, or pose security risks
  • Recertification only after faulty machines have been re-tested for accuracy and security

Naturally, voting machines and systems must be certified and ready for use by election day. If not, the machines can't be used and a backup system is needed. Needless to say, election officials work day and night to make sure their voting systems are operating properly before the polls open.

What You Can Do

What happens if you notice a problem at the voting booth, like the machine won't read or scan your ballot, or the push buttons don't work properly? Talk to a poll worker immediately and follow-up by contacting your state or local board of elections. Also contact your state attorney general. Explain exactly what problem you had and the exact location of the polling station. The odds are you're not the only one who had a problem.

Can you sue? Usually, no. The secretary of state or attorney general normally is the only one who can file a lawsuit over violations of state election laws. Likewise, only the US attorney general can file lawsuits over violations of federal election laws. There's one exception, though. If the problem at the booth amounted to a violation of your voting rights you may be able to file a lawsuit.

The election process is one of the hallmarks of our form of government. Because it's so important, our government officials try to make sure the process and voting system is fair, accurate, and reliable. Sometimes there are problems, and it's up to us to help make sure the problems are fixed.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do paper records still need to be kept if a state uses electronic voting machines?
  • Can a voter request a recount of election results?
  • If a state uses an electronic voting system can it still use paper absentee ballots?
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