The Current State Of Voting Machines

With Election Day less than a week away, NPR's Michele Norris talks to Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University about the current state of electronic voting machines. The machines have been a source of concern since their introduction, and there have been reports of problems during primaries and early voting this year. Norden recently authored a study about voting machines.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In the last 10 years or so, election officials have spent millions of dollars on electronic voting systems hoping for better accuracy and reliability. The idea was to eliminate hanging chads or lost paper ballots, but new technologies have often introduced new challenges and in some cases serious problems.

With the midterms less than a week away, we wanted to assess the current state of electronic voting and the outlook for potential snags. Lawrence Norden is a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Mr. LAWRENCE NORDEN (Senior Counsel, Democracy Program, Brennan Center, New York University): Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: The Brennan Center recently issued a report analyzing electronic voting machines across the country. Voting machines are often so complicated that the only people who really understand how they work or what to do if they stop working are the manufacturers themselves. So what have we learned about problems involving software bugs...

Mr. NORDEN: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...and programming errors?

Mr. NORDEN: Well, you know, this is a real problem. These machines run on tens of thousands of lines of code, so inevitably, there are going to be software bugs. I think, unfortunately, what we haven't done nearly as much as we should be doing is, frankly, keeping track of these problems, following up on them and making sure that they're thoroughly investigated and that word gets out to all election officials when there are real problems.

I don't want to say that that doesn't happen but because we don't have -for the most part, we don't have a federal agency that keeps track of most of the problems on the systems and is empowered to investigate them. I think, unfortunately, we see a kind of repetition of some of the same problems on the same systems, unfortunately, cropping up again a couple of years later somewhere else because election officials in that other county just weren't aware that this was a problem.

NORRIS: And what kind of problems are we talking about?

Mr. NORDEN: Well, there are all kinds of problems. I think the most serious problems are problems where voters are disenfranchised, where votes are not totaled correctly, where votes are dropped, where what are called phantom votes show up on the tally service. I don't want to make this sound like it's a widespread problem. These are occasional occurrences, and most of the time, we catch them. But, you know, whenever something like this happens, I think it, unfortunately, can shake people's faith in their voting systems.

NORRIS: What about hackability?

Mr. NORDEN: Yeah. Look, there are - computer scientists have been warning about this for years. On the other hand, we've made tremendous progress in the past few years and putting in the right procedures to ensure that if somebody does attempt to maliciously interfere with the machine, that we should be able to catch that.

So I think the best example of that is that in the past few years dozens of states have passed laws that require some kind of voter-verified paper record. That means that, you know, if somebody did tamper with the machine so that the electronic totals were inaccurate, we would have the paper record to check against it, and we could recount all of the paper records if we needed to.

NORRIS: What's the outlook for next Tuesday?

Mr. NORDEN: For the most part, these systems are going to work. They're going to work well. People are going to vote. Their votes are going to be recorded, and they're going to be counted accurately. There's no question in my mind, given the tens of thousands of machines in the United States, there will be breakdowns. There will be long lines. That's just an unfortunate reality, I think.

One thing I would add is that to the extent that people see problems with the systems that they're voting on, if they think that, for instance, there's been this vote flip where they've intended to vote for one person and the machine shows them as voting for somebody else, they should make sure that they notify poll workers so that those problems can be corrected as soon as possible. And if they have the time, they should call a nonpartisan election protection group, like 866-OUR-VOTE, so that as many people are aware of these problems as possible

NORRIS: Lawrence Norden, thank you very much.

Mr. NORDEN: Thanks so much, Michele.

NORRIS: Lawrence Norden is a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

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