Why Your Toaster Works Better Than Your Voting Machine

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This week, New York became the final state to make the change from old-fashioned analog booths to electronic voting machines. It was the fulfillment of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, passed in the wake of the Bush-Gore debacle. Over the intervening years, New York spent more than $160 million in state and federal money purchasing equipment and training poll workers in preparation for this switch.

The results -- computer malfunctions, lost votes and enraged citizens -- were all too familiar. They have followed every election cycle since this transformation began. On November 2, when all 50 states will use electronic voting machines for the first time in history, America seems destined to repeat what NY City Mayor Michael Bloomberg angrily called "a royal screw-up."

Why are electronic voting machines so prone to problems? Technophobes are quick to sing the praises of the old fashioned system and blame the complexity of the computerized approach. But a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice cuts to the real heart of the issue.

In "Voting System Failures: A Database Solution," Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center writes, "For the vast majority of voting systems in use today, manufacturers are not required to report malfunctions to any government agency, and there is no agency that either investigates such alleged failures or alerts election officials and the general public to possible problems."

The instruments entrusted with our democracy, in other words, get less scrutiny than our toasters.

The result is a travelling circus of errors, with the same machines and the same problems popping up in state after state, city after city. Norden's report features a case study on Diebold voting machines that malfunctioned during a 2008 election in Humboldt County, California.  Officials dug into the problem and discovered that the company had known about it four years earlier.

Earlier this year, election officials in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, ran into trouble with voting machines that froze up and shut down in the middle of taking ballots. After calling around to half a dozen states, Cuyahoga County election director Jane Platten found that several counties in Florida had used the same model of machines and experienced the same issues.

It turns out the vendor knew about the problems but hadn't informed the county, for obvious reasons. As an election official interviewed for Norden's report noted, "Vendors are in the business of selling machines, and often don't have an incentive" to inform customers of problems with their product.

There is a government agency, the Election Assistance Commission, created by the 2002 Help America Vote Act to test these new electronic voting systems. But the commission doesn't attempt to record or resolve problems with machines it has not certified. Since the EAC only began certifying machines in June of 2009, Norden's report found that "approximately 99 percent of U.S. jurisdictions in 2010 will be using equipment that is not certified by the EAC."

Norden's report offers several suggestions for addressing these systemic election problems: increase the power of individual states to monitor voting machines and encourage them to negotiate stronger contracts with vendors. But no matter how thoroughly tested software is, bugs will emerge once the product goes public, be it Microsoft Windows or new voting machines. That's why Norden's best solution is his simplest. Create a robust database where election officials from around the nation can share information, so that at the very least, the same problems don't crop up time and again.

Rather than reject technology, states should embrace it. The web would be a perfect vehicle for sharing videos on how to deal with mechanical problems and uploading patches to fix computer errors. The EAC should sit down with engineers to learn about the best ways to track bugs from one version of the software to the next. Hopefully this kind of collaboration will start immediately. Considering that the turnout during this week's primary was a fraction of what it will be on November 2, the chaos that occurred at many New York precincts might have been just a small preview of what's to come.

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Benjamin Popper is a reporter based in Brooklyn.

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