Democracy and Elections

Democrats Describe Efforts to Limit Voting Machines Problems

As activists worry about paperless voting machines, a top DNC lawyer describes the party's election protection efforts for voting machines.
As early voting has begun across the country, there have many news reports of electronic voting machine problems: from votes for president jumping between candidates on touch screens in West Virginia and Texas, to computer scanners not reading paper ballots in Florida or scanners in New Mexico that did not count votes for president or senate, to the candidates' names disappearing from computer screens in South Carolina.

Election integrity websites like VotersUnite.org and blogs like The BradBlog have chronicled the problems. Groups like Progressive Democrats of America have held conference calls discussing how to respond. While most reports do not say how many votes ultimately are at risk, almost are all prompted by the fear that, unless stopped, e-voting issues could cascade, particularly when the process enters the vote counting stage.

The overriding concern with paperless voting is there is no way to verify the accuracy of the underlying software used to record and count votes. As one participant on the PDA conference call said, "We're losing votes every day."

Implicit in the hand wringing is the question, 'Where is the Democratic Party when it comes to safeguarding the vote?'

The answer, according to lawyers and others who been pushing the Democratic National Committee to be pro-active on electronic voting issues, is that the DNC has assembled a nationwide team tasked to voting machine concerns. They have been at work behind the scenes since the start of early voting -- following up with state and local officials when problems arise, these lawyers say. While the DNC's effort may not seem apparent or sufficient to activists, those doing this work say it is unprecedented and comprehensive.

"Yes, the DNC's election protection program includes a voting machine task force -- it includes experienced e-voting litigators, experts on the various types of machines, voting rights lawyers and other specialists," said Justin Levitt, DNC National Voter Protection Counsel. "Our election protection effort, including our e-voting team, are prepared to respond rapidly and effectively to issues as they arise, including any issues involving technology.

"For example, during observation of logic and accuracy testing in New Mexico, we caught and fixed a ballot definition error before a single vote was threatened. We are monitoring voter protection issues around the country very closely, and responding in real-time -- often behind the scenes, but always active."

Electronic voting issues are only one area among the DNC's broader election protection effort, Levitt said in a "Promote the Vote" memo sent this month to lawyers volunteering for the Obama campaign.
"Though Election Day deployment is pivotal, the program comprises much more than just boots on the ground on Election Day. We've retained or opened pipelines to the nation's top experts on voting systems, registration databases, ballot design, student voting, and provisional ballots. We've been monitoring voting machines to ensure that they record the vote accurately; we've been examining ballots to minimize the potential for confusion; we've been pushing to eliminate lines, by ensuring that elections officials are ready to meet unprecedented turnout; we've been expanding opportunities for early and absentee voting; and we've been watching the voting rolls, looking for worrisome backlogs or purges, and comparing the rolls maintained by the states to our own comprehensive registration list. The care with which we have conducted the most ambitious voter registration program of any campaign to date is equaled only by the care with which we are ensuring those first-time registrants, and all voters in underserved communities, are educated about the rules of the election system and their rights as legitimate voters."
The DNC's program began by tracking the nuts and bolts of voting in every election jurisdiction in the country, the memo said. That survey, begun after the 2006 election, catalogued arcane but important details: the county officials responsible for various voting functions; the voter registration standards and procedures; the procedures to verify voter registrations, maintain voter lists and purge voters; the voting machines used, including how machines are allocated to polling places, the security practices, the contractors who programmed them, vote count and audit procedures; the procedures for absentee voting and provisional ballots; Election Day preparations; polling place procedures; where vote counts are posted, and early voting practices.

The "Promote the Vote" memo said the party has built upon this foundation. It said the DNC has "assembled talent local counsel in 50 states" and "tens of thousands of volunteers had signed up in the voter protection program." It cited lawsuits the DNC filed in Michigan to stop GOP plans to challenge the registrations of voters who moved due to foreclosure, as well as an effort in Montana to challenge "more than 6,000 lawfully registered voters." It touted other efforts to defend voters in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin.

"We've been on the ground for months and the early vote is part of that preparation," Levitt said. "Our priorities are to ensure that every eligible voter who wants to vote can vote, and that the vote is counted and that includes every part of the process."

The DNC has a telephone hotline and web page where voters, campaign volunteers or activists can report problems, he said. "Call the election protection team on our voter information hotline, 877-us4obama (877-874-6226) or make a report on our web reporting system."

Whether these resources and responses will satisfy election integrity activists is an open question. That e-voting problems continue to surface undermines their confidence. One big difference between the activist community and DNC is the activists want to end the use of troubling technologies altogether whereas the DNC wants to ensure the election machinery, however flawed, works as best as it can for the public -- because the voting systems in place are the systems that will be used in 2008.

"These people are not ignorant of what is going on, so we will see how it goes," said Bob Fitrakis, an election lawyer in Columbus, Ohio, who worried there would not be enough machines to accommodate voters in a high turnout. Still, he and others who had front row views of the party's lack of preparations in 2004 acknowledged the DNC apparently had heeded past mistakes. He and others in Ohio who had seen the Obama campaign's 2008 Election Day legal "Observer Manual" said it was thorough.

On electronic voting issues, the Ohio manual described problems and solutions for the paperless voting systems used in the state, as well as how to handle numerous e-voting issues such as security seals, memory cards, machine calibration, vote count print outs, backup paper ballots, and other technical topics that are the currency of this realm.

Still, e-voting critics like Brad Friedman of BradBlog.com are skeptical. In a post late Friday detailing more electronic voting machine snafus, he said, "This is just getting worse and worse. Now it's happening in Texas. (And in MO, if you read to the end of the article). And the vaunted 'thousands of attorneys' from the Obama campaign and the DNC are still nowhere to be found."

But attorneys and others working under Levitt have said for weeks that they do not want to publicize their efforts. They said they want voters to be confident that their votes will count and should problems occur, they will respond. The DNC does not want to convey doubts to new voters, they said.

"We are amply prepared to ensure that the elections run as smoothly as possible this year," Levitt said.

Such assurances may only go so far. But at least one independent measure suggests that, to date, only a handful of states have experienced voting machine problems. A new online portal showing complaints made so far this fall to the country's largest non-partisan election protection hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, at OurVoteLive.org, reveals only seven states have reported more than one incident involving machine snafus: California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.

As of late Saturday, the OurVoteLive.org reported 50 incidents concerning voting machine problems and another 50 concerning voter intimidation out of 9,400 incidents; nearly 45 percent of the calls to this hotline concerned voter registration issues and 13 percent concerned polling place inquiries.

(Editor's note: Brad Friedman's detailed response to this report can be found in the comment section).
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and author of Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).