Officials In The Dark About Voting Machine Glitches

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Problems with voting machines are still popping up 10 years after the controversial presidential vote in Florida.

One reason is that election officials are often unaware of previous problems with the equipment they use, according to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

One example is something that happened earlier this year in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Election officials there were testing optical scan machines shortly before the state's primary when, for no apparent reason, some of the machines froze up and even shut down right in the middle of counting ballots.

Searching For Help

Election director Jane Platten says she turned to technicians from the machine vendor for help.

"And they looked at us with the blank face that I've seen so often when we've encountered problems with voting systems," Platten says.

They were as perplexed as she was. So, Platten did what she has done before.

"I had my staff hurry up and get on the phone with every other jurisdiction in the country who uses the DS200 system. We called California, we called Wisconsin, we called Florida, and we found several counties in Florida where they had experienced this problem," Platten says.

The company, Election Systems and Software, came up with a temporary fix. But Platten says it would have been a lot easier — and far less nerve-wracking — if she'd known ahead of time that another state had had similar troubles and that no votes had been lost. She says the vendor knew about the Florida problems but believed they were unrelated.

A Pattern Of Problems

Lawrence Norden, the author of the Brennan Center report, says that what happened in Cuyahoga County is not uncommon — election officials often learn after the fact that others have had difficulties with the same equipment they're using. He says that is what happened in 2008 in Humboldt County, Calif., when officials discovered a problem with their Diebold voting machines, only to learn that the company had known about it four years earlier.

"We should be keeping track of the kinds of problems that we have with these systems so that we can ensure that they're minimized and that we're catching them as early as possible," Norden says, adding that voting machines are not regulated like many other consumer products.

The Case For A Federal Database

The Brennan Center is recommending that there be a federally run, searchable database where voting system failures can be compiled. The center says vendors should also be required to report quickly, and alert customers to any flaws and potential solutions.

Rokey Suleman, election director for Washington, D.C., welcomes such a change. He says it wasn't easy finding out which machines had the best track record when the city was recently in the market to buy new ones.

"Vendors typically tell election officials what they feel they need to know," Suleman says. "They don't always want to disclose flaws in their equipment."

Washington required companies competing for the city's business to identify any issues that had been raised about their machines. Suleman says some did, but others didn't until he brought up some things he'd heard about independently.

"And they went, 'Oh, those kinds of issues!' And then they came forth with ... 'These are some of the issues and these are some of the solutions we have to mitigate these problems,' " he says.

For their part, vendors say they agree with the Brennan Center recommendations — at least in theory. They say they already try to alert customers about potential problems as soon as they can.

"It's our responsibility, and we take it seriously," says Howard Cramer, vice president of Dominion Voting Systems Corp., now one of the largest voting machine companies in the United States. "I think where that ball gets dropped is exactly that — just in the line of communications. People are busy."

Cramer says his company is building its own website source for customers to report and find information about Dominion's voting equipment. He notes that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has also started requiring such reporting on the voting machines it certifies for use around the country.

In fact, the commission this summer issued an advisory about the problems encountered in Cuyahoga County. The federal commission noted the temporary fix recommended by the manufacturer: Make sure the machine is completely off and then restart it.

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