Only 5 states very well-prepared to handle voting machine errors, study finds

Rachel Rose Hartman

How equipped is your state to handle voting machine errors? Chances are, not overly prepared.

Apparently just five states—Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin—are "exceptionally well-prepared" to deal with voting machine problems and breakdowns, according to a new study released Wednesday by Common Cause in conjunction with the Verified Voting Foundation and the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic.

And six states are underprepared, said the report: Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

"Recent election history reminds us that equipment does fail and votes will be lost without key protections," Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, said in a statement. "We're dependent on complex electronic voting systems that must be surrounded by robust procedures to safeguard votes and verify results if we are to avoid known and unknown risks of election failure. Do-overs are never an acceptable part of an election plan. Fair elections are at the heart of our democracy, yet many states are not yet prepared to survive voting system failures that could change results."

"We all know that computers crash. Voting machines are no different," Susannah Goodman, director of Voting Integrity Program at Common Cause told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "And that's why there needs to be something on paper."

Past errors have included the failure or crash of computerized systems, technical problems with machines, computer issues such as "vote flipping" where a candidate other than the one selected is displayed, memory card issues including upload failures, and mis-tallied and lost votes.

With expected close elections in many of the unprepared states, voting errors could have a significant impact on the 2012 results.

The study surveyed voting equipment in all 50 states—as it did for a 2008 study of voting machine error preparedness—and ranked states based on current best practices in use in the U.S. The groups' aim is to identify and highlight voting machine preparedness ahead of the election and recommend changes that could help combat potential voter disenfranchisement.

"Vigilance will help ensure that machinery-related problems do not interfere with the right of eligible citizens to vote, or imperil the accuracy of the vote count," the study states.

The study's authors note that over 300 voting machine problems were reported to election hotlines in the 2010 elections, and over 1,800 issues were reported in 2008. The unfortunate side effect of more complex voting technology is an increased possibility of error.

And, as the technology used for elections has become more complicated, the possibility of error has increased substantially.

The study judged states by the following criteria: whether they required a paper voting record in addition to an electronic one, whether they had contingency plans for voting machine backups, whether they required paper ballots for military and overseas voters, whether they audited paper ballots post-election and whether they had accounting and reconciliation practices that allow for the discovery of errors.

The report found that a total of 16 states still use paperless voting machines in some or all of their counties, Goodman said Wednesday.