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National Issues

A Preliminary Analysis of Our Vote Live Voting Equipment Reports PDF  | Print |  Email
By Joseph Lorenzo Hall   
November 14, 2008
This report was posted at Joe Hall's Not Quite a Blog and is reposted here with permission.

Warning: This is a very long post.


I've spent the past week looking over the voting equipment problems captured by the Election Protection Coalition's 25 nationwide call centers into the Our Vote Live database. There were around 1900 such incidents in the database, although that number is probably closer to 1700 taking into account duplicates.

Before I launch into the analysis, a few caveats:

  • This is voter-reported data, which means it can be inaccurate.
  • There has been no attempt to control for multiple reports from a single precinct.
  • In many cases it is hard to tell what exactly happened as the incident reports were taken by mostly non-technical legal volunteers from mostly non-technical voters and volunteers in the field.
  • Given the unbelievable popularity of the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline, OVL was unable to capture all incidents that people wanted to report.
  • There are undoubtedly incidents that were not reported to the OVL hotline for a variety of reasons.
Bottom-line: This is useful for qualitative notions of what went wrong on election day.

While I've worked to make this post accessible to an audience that may not be familiar with the vagaries of voting technology, I just don't have enough time to explain everything. In that sense, I encourage you to ask questions () and I can amend this document to clarify as needed.

The Big Picture

Somewhere close to 85-90% of all voting equipment incident reports from the OVL database are very simple and report some combination of: broken equipment, long lines, and/or emergency ballots being handed out and/or auxiliary bins on optical scan systems being used (many optical scan systems have a bin incorporated into the design of the machine where ballots can be placed in the event the system ceases to function or the power remains out for hours). If we can do anything to improve the experience of the average voter facing a machine problem, it should be reduce the amount of time they spend in line.

Another curious feature of the data is the voters' uniformly negative attitudes toward contingency or back-up plans. Whenever the primary mode of voting is affected, whatever the contingency plan to keep people voting, it appears that voters are often upset and mistrustful. They seem to think that there is a possibility that their vote will not count if cast via a contingency plan. This is unfortunate as with any critical technical system, there should be a contingency plan in place that covers what to do if that system fails and how the system may continue or recover from that failure. For example, when an optical scanner goes down, the standard contingency plan is to place ballots in an auxiliary bin or container. Voters reported concerns with this kind of accommodation and were worried that their votes might not count. In a number of cases, voters refused to place their ballots into auxiliary bins and waited for hours before the scanner could be serviced or a new replacement scanner brought in. It's clear from this that we need to do a better job of educating voters as to what to do and what to expect in case of emergencies.

Ok, enough of the big picture; now on with the details!

Broken Machines, Long Lines, Long Waits

As I said, the OVL database contains mostly complaints about broken machinery, long lines, long waits to vote and reports of emergency ballots being used instead of the normal mode of voting. These incidents are so numerous that it doesn't really make sense to say much more. However, there are some interesting features from these reports.

Machine breakdowns and poll book bottlenecks lead to some voters waiting in line for a long time. Machine breakdowns ranged from simple problems to reports like one where all 15 voting machines had stopped working in an Atlanta polling place (61728). In some cases, the registration process caused the bottleneck leading to long lines, including reports of only one pollbook for hundreds of voters in New York City (68936) and e-pollbook problems in Georgia and Maryland (48481, 86413). We have reports of people waiting in line for 3 hours in New Jersey (63356), 3.5 hours in Georgia (55674), 5 hours in Ohio (21500), 6 hours in Missouri (82785) and a poor voter who fainted due to exhaustion in NYC while waiting in line (83379). In many cases, long lines were exacerbated by voters insisting on feeding their own ballot into an optical scan machine, despite it taking a long time to service or replace the affected equipment (Ohio: 52729). In a number of cases, precincts began to run out of paper ballots (Virginia: 43073).

Problems with Emergency Ballots

Emergency ballots are paper ballots used in case the main voting equipment in a polling places ceases to function properly. They're typically placed in a sealed ballot box or in an auxiliary bin incorporated into the design of an optical scan system. Some jurisdictions in the past have not planned accordingly and either not provided enough emergency ballots, so that polling places run out, or not provided them at all. I was very encouraged to see that in most cases, emergency ballots were available. However, what I didn't count on was that voters consider voting via an emergency ballot to be fundamentally suspect; that is, most were worried that their vote wouldn't count if cast via emergency ballot. We also saw some confusion between provisional ballots and emergency ballots, cases where pollworkers were refusing to hand out emergency ballots and a number of complaints about decreased voter privacy when emergency ballots were being used.

Voters Uncomfortable with Using Emergency Ballots

Many voters seemed worried or uncomfortable casting emergency ballots. In New York City, a caller reported that people were leaving rather than casting emergency ballots (68315) and, as mentioned above, there is evidence that some people refused to leave until they could cast their ballot normally in the machine (Virginia: 43392, 45800). In one case from Ohio, a voter reported that one of his ballot pages wouldn't scan and that he was told by a pollworker to place his ballot in a folder labeled "Oh Crap" with his name, phone number and address on it (47805).

Other cases I noted (by no means is this list comprehensive): NY: 70990, 43538; OH: 46738, 48213; PA: 46490, 51811; FL: 56051, 67857; MO: 48184, 54810; IN: 44583; IL: 51008; AL: 64675; AZ: 52547, 60247, 92471; CA: 82036, 83252

Not Permitting Voters to Use Emergency Ballots

We saw cases in at least two states where poll workers were refusing to hand out emergency ballots despite significant machine failures. Despite a ruling in Pennsylvania that required emergency ballots to be given out when 50% of machines in a precinct were down, OVL received a number of reports that pollworkers were not handing out emergency ballots (e.g., 45436, 45545). In one case a caller claimed that voters in line were "fighting with poll workers" over emergency ballots (46401). There were also reports of polling places in New York not offering emergency ballots (43072, 43116, 43152). We also had a number of cases from New Jersey where pollworkers were confusing provisional ballots with emergency ballots (e.g., 43302)

Privacy Concerns with Emergency Ballots

Numerous voters called in to say that the privacy afforded to them while filling out their ballot was severely impacted by emergency balloting procedures. A pollworker in California decided to take over the role of the broken optical scanner and manually review the marking of each ballot, presumably looking for overvotes and undervotes (57719). Voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania reported feeling very uncomfortable filling out their emergency ballots as others in the polling place could see how they voted (44091, 52199). Finally, the length of the lines in Michigan lead to a shortage of privacy sleeves, without which voters were not being allowed to cast their ballots (47325, 48018, 49671, 53785). (A privacy sleeve is essentially a legal-sized Manila envelope, about $1 apiece at Staples.)

Problems with Disability Access Equipment

One of the big promises of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) was that voters with disabilities would finally be able to cast votes privately and independently. Unfortunately, while all jurisdictions in the US now have disabled access technology in their polling places (or some other accommodation), this promise has fallen short.

In many cases, the disability access equipment simply didn't work or was not set up properly on election day (AZ: 54531; CA: 82162, 82751, 93171; NY: 43261, 88576; MO: 84713; MN: 92806). Pollworkers frequently did not know how to use these systems (NY: 45978, 43372, 46992; MD: 49457). And despite laws like HAVA, we still see reports of basic accessibility problems such as building and polling place accessibility (51922, 84713, 88353), complicated ballots (85857) and voters with serious conditions such as walkers and diabetes having to wait in long lines (49457, 88512)... the diabetic left without voting, by the way.

One particular case warrants special attention (88483). In this case, a blind voter found that the machine was not working. When the voter brought this to the attention of the poll workers at her polling place, they "complained about trying to make machine operable when there was a line and no one else needed to use it." This is truly terrible: a poll worker complaining about doing their job and doing so in a way that appears intended to make the disabled voter feel guilty about how their disability affects the polling place. This pollworker at Long Lane Court in Delaware County, Pennsylvania should be ashamed.

Finally, in New York there was an interesting case where a voter of Haitian descent had trouble figuring out what was going on when the machines broke down due to language issues (92905). This case gives a hint at what voters with limited English proficiency face when things go wrong.

Machine Malfunctions, Fixes

In the realm of machine problems, the data shows a variety of interesting things, from questionable technical fixes to broken and unstable machinery to unexpected behavior from machines.

Improper Technical Fixes

The most serious cases concerning machine malfunction involved what I call improper technical fixes or inappropriate servicing of equipment. In South Carolina, individuals removed a voting machine from the polling place and took it out to a car to tinker with it (89533). In New York, there were three striking cases of inappropriate service. A man who used to be a poll worker or election technician, but was no longer, was resetting the lever machines in one precinct after each vote (55057). In another case, a police officer reportedly fixed a machine (70424). Finally, a voting machine needed to be "reset" and the pollworkers required one voter to "waste" their vote as it was reset with the voters ballot still activated but not cast (88142). In all of these cases, it is hard to tell if the person "fixing" the machines is an authorized agent of the state or local election official.

Possible Broken Lights/Buttons, Levers, Etc.

Voting machines, like all machines, break (in fact, another way of stating the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is simply: "Everything breaks").

The OVL data has numerous reports of lights and buttons not working on machines in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (NJ: 46008, 56364, 59330, 85342, 87092; PA: 66514, 69144, 80924). In New York, we saw many reports of broken levers and broken lights that should be illuminating the lever ballot (NY: 61117, 62013, 46658, 43649, 45963, 84727). In one case, a voter tried to cast a write-in vote, but the write-in wasn't working; when the voter was allowed to use a different machine, she reports voting for someone else on the ballot because she was afraid that using the write-in slot on the machine would cause the new machine to break (70962).

Optical Scanners Not Incrementing Ballot Card Count

When a voter inserts an optical scan ballot into an optical scanner, usually a serial number counter increments to show that a new ballot has been scanned. In a number of cases---from Ohio, Virginia, Minnesota, Texas and North Carolina---we see reports of voters saying that the number did not increment when they inserted the ballot (OH: 70443, 84413; VA: 46089, 58330, 93670; MN: 67120; TX: 65937; NC: 59196, 61940). What might cause this? Typically, if a ballot page has an overvote or write-in, that page will be redirected (or "diverted") to a smaller, separate ballot box in the machine for ballots that need human inspection. Pollworkers usually have to manually hit an "override" switch to allow these ballots to be fed in and the counter does not increment in these cases. In many jurisdictions, these ballots are examined and then "remade" to correctly reflect the voter's intent (as long as they can tell what the voter intended to do).

Machine Stability

In a number of cases, machines appeared to be unstable or simply didn't work as they were supposed to. The data shows machines that keep rebooting (60554), frozen or hung machines (43698), machines that shut down (63059), machines that would work only after periodic shaking and kicking (43430), problems with networked eSlate voting machines (57580) and a machine where the optical scan memory card was not working with the machine it was suppose to work with (81997).

Ballot Navigation, Missing Races

We saw a number of issues with voters having difficulty understanding how to navigate a digital ballot, including "fleeing" voters, "premature" voters, missing races and issues with the user interface for voting machines.

"Fleeing voters" and "Premature voters"

A "fleeing voter" is a voter who leaves a voting machine without having cast their voted ballot. A "premature voter" is one who accidentally casts their ballot (or has it cast for them) before they are finished voting their ballot. I have typically associated both of these kinds of voters with first-generation DRE voting systems like the Sequoia AVC Advantage and the Danaher ELECTronic 1242; both these systems have large "VOTE" buttons that are easily missed by some voters---"fleeing" voters---but that are activated and can be pressed anywhere during the voting session---"premature" voters.

We do see quite a few reports of fleeing and premature voters on these older systems (NJ: 57655, 65732; PA: 55416, 60873, 85533, 85950, 65711). However, we also see evidence of premature voting on a lever machine in NY (69990), premature voting on the ES&S iVotronic DRE in Ohio and Pennsylvania (61267, 82609, 55416), premature voting on the Sequoia AVC Edge DRE in Virginia (42934), a premature voter on the new ES&S DS200 system in Florida (49123) and a fleeing voter on the Sequoia AVC Edge II Plus in Chicago (53492).

UI Issues

In terms of reports of user-interface issues, we saw a few cases where the iVotronic interacted strangely or unexpectedly when voting a straight-party option (56027, 57497). There was confusion where a voter saw arrows next to her choices as well as the "VOTE" option (58627). In one case the voter reports hitting the "cast ballot" button and the machine responded that her vote was canceled (66279). Finally, in Washington DC, a voter reported that the review screen on a DRE had reported that he hadn't voted in all races, but when he went back in the ballot to check, he found that he had voted in all races (87927).

Missing Races

A seemingly abnormal amount of voters called in to report missing races off their ballot (e.g., 62077). In Virginia, these came in the form of ballots where the Presidential race was the only contest available (45852, 47895, 49416, 55472, 56160) and vice-versa---ballots where the Presidential race was the only race missing (45157, 45272, 48455, 49819, 53575, 55802, 57468). There were also reports of incomplete ballots where the presidential race was missing in Pennsylvania on the AVC Edge and iVotronic DREs respectively (59545, 63224).

Paper Record Problems

There were a number of problems reported with voter verified paper record (VVPR) printers, optical scan machines and bleeding pens.

In Ohio, three concerning problems with VVPR printers on the Premier AccuVote-TSx cropped up. Voters reported seeing blank paper when they went to check the VVPR (58266), a paper jam affecting 36/50 ballots (84679) and a problem where the last voter's VVPR was left exposed to the next voter (93742). In other states, voters reported a non-printing paper trail in Missouri and Illinois (88648, 90876) and a paper trail printer error in California (63150).

In Virginia, we saw problems reported with wet ballots gumming up the works of optical scan machines (92623, 90490). In one polling place in California, a voter reported their optical scan machine was "shredding" ballots (61864).

In a few cases, bad marking instruments were reportedly being used with optical scan ballots: felt-tip pens or permanent "magic" markers that can bleed through ballot paper. Felt tip pens were reportedly being used in California and Florida (61899, 65847) and in a few cases affecting races on the opposite side (60169, 61636).


Reports of "vote-flipping" were significant. "Vote-flipping" is where a voter attempts to register a vote for one choice on the ballot only to have a different choice selected. I'm not a big fan of this terminology as I think it inappropriately lumps a bunch of design problems, technical problems and voter behaviors into one over-broad category. Regardless of what I think, voters reported it often.

Few voters understand what I think the dominant cause of vote-flipping to be: touchscreen miscalibration. However, one voter from Chicago recognized a miscalibration and had the pollworker recalibrate the touchscreen (51219). Other interesting cases of note include: one case of republican to democratic party vote-flipping (87474), a couple of cases from Mississippi and Missouri where the error was only noticed on the paper trail (70899, 69731) and a couple cases from Mississippi and Georgia of vote flipping in a contest other than US President (70606, 84842).

Other vote-flipping cases: FL: 80828; MO: 34226, 82436, 69731; OH: 51055, 56199; PA: 59342, 91483, 67389, 68496, 95316; VA: 46922, 53562, 59267; MD: 86493, 91143; MS: 92806; TX: 85308; NV: 13625; MO: 34226, 82436; NC: 56860; SC: 58223, 89640; IN: 41481; GA: 91615; WV: 04625.

Poor Ballot or Machine Custody

We saw a number of reports of poor chain of custody (control) over either ballots or voting machines or both. In California, these two problems were mixed in one polling place when a pollworker decided to periodically empty the emergency/auxiliary bin and place emergency ballots in the main bin (88942). Not only is this way too much handling of the paper ballots, but the seal on the door to the main ballot bin was compromised.

When ballot boxes got full or auxiliary bins began to overflow, or simply when there was no ballot-box-like container in which to place ballots, we saw reports of poor ballot custody. Ballots in New York were "just laying around" (85609), in Pennsylvania and California in plastic bags (48028, 70442, 70670), in Florida in duffel bags, on the floor and in folders (58347, 68859, 67857), stacked on top of a machine in Minnesota (62835) and into an unsecured and open ballot box in Indiana (45556).

There were reports of unsealed machines in New York and Pennsylvania (56995, 47935, 52090).

Problems with Pollworkers Related to Machines

Reports of problems involving pollworkers were numerous. Staffing and training a pollworker force can be a challenge and occasionally problems with pollworkers can effect the voter's interaction with voting technologies.

Improper Advice or Improper Casting of Ballots

In a few cases, pollworkers intentionally or mistakenly cast a voter's ballot before they are finished voting or before they've had a chance to revise their ballot. A pollworker in New York prematurely cast a voter's lever machine ballot (85508). When a voter was asking for instructions on how to vote in Virginia, a pollworker cast the voter's blank ballot (48003). Pollworkers in Illinois appeared to be improperly overriding optical scan ballots and casting a ballot before a voter was finished (56655, 68580). Finally, pollworkers in Arizona were also reported to be improperly overriding overvoted ballots (86848).

Other Pollworker Machine Effects

There were a few other interesting pollworker-related cases. A lead pollworker in Ohio suddenly got sick and had to be taken away in an ambulance; this cast the polling place into chaos when the other pollworkers were unsure how to compensate (63881). In Pennsylvania, a voter reported a problem with a voting machine and the pollworker requested that the voter swear on the Bible to the veracity of her claims (58922). In one case, unrelated to voting technology, a pollworker was forcing people to sign their names in the pollbook next to names that were not the voters' (46764). In Ohio, pollworkers were handing out the incorrect ballot style for a precinct for a while (44347) and in Florida, one voter even received a partially filled-out ballot (87761).


In the proverbial "kitchen-sink" category, I should mention a few other interesting reports:
  • In Pennsylvania, a caller reported that the instructions in the local newspaper for voting on the touchscreens showed a touchscreen that said "No" and "Yes and No", but the voter just wanted to vote "No" (25526).
  • A pollworker from Georgia called in to ask for the password to their voting machine so that they could delete a ballot (58275).
  • Voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania noticed that their voting machines were still on Daylight Savings Time and were concerned that their votes (or some votes, at least) would not count due to this (47027, 86539).
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