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Exclusive: E-voting puts vote accuracy at risk in four key states

In four battleground states – Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado – glitches in electronic-voting machines could produce erroneous tallies that would be difficult to detect and potentially impossible to correct, a Monitor analysis finds.

By Staff writer / October 25, 2012

Barbara Sanders of the League of Women Voters selects a candidate during a test of an electronic voting machine in Columbia, Md., in October 2004. As Sanders voted others tallied the same votes from paper ballots to ensure the electronic equipment recorded votes properly.

Chris Gardner/AP

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Touch-screen electronic voting machines in at least four states pose a risk to the integrity of the 2012 presidential election, according to a Monitor analysis.

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In four key battleground states – Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado – glitches in e-voting machines could produce incorrect or incomplete tallies that would be difficult to detect and all but impossible to correct because the machines have no paper record for officials to go back and check.

While many state officials laud the accuracy of e-voting machines, mechanical and software failures are not a new problem. What makes the risk more serious this year is that polls project a close election, and e-voting problems in any of the four states in question could affect who wins the presidency.

"No matter how unlikely it seems now, there's a chance that this election will be so close that it could be flipped by a single voting machine problem in a single place in any one of those states," says Edward Felten, a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey who has analyzed e-voting machine weaknesses. "To avoid that, it's key to have a record of what the voter saw – and that means having a paper ballot or other paper record."

Paper verification of votes has proved to be a vital backstop to ensure that voting-machine software is not corrupt and that programming errors did not affect the accuracy of electronic vote tallies. Voting machines have at times "lost" thousands of votes or even "flipped" votes from one candidate to another, and total breakdowns are not unheard of.

For example:

  • In 2006, some 18,000 votes were electronically "lost" by e-vote systems in a single Florida congressional race with no paper backup or ballots available to review.
  • In May 2011, voters in Pennsylvania’s Venango County complained that paperless electronic touch-screen machines were "flipping their choices from one party to another," according to a report by Verified Voting, a nonprofit group in Carlsbad, Calif., that tracks voting machine use nationwide. After an inconclusive audit of election results, the county simply decided to use paper ballots counted by optical scanners in future elections.
  • In March, an e-voting system in Florida’s Palm Beach County experienced a "synchronization” problem in a municipal election. The election software attributed votes to the wrong contest and the wrong candidates won. Thankfully, paper ballots existed. After a court-ordered recount, results were changed and two losing candidates were declared winners. 
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