ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Many voters in yesterday's primaries cast their ballots on touch-screen voting machines. Scattered problems were reported, including delays in Montgomery County, Maryland. Election officials there forgot to deliver cards needed to run the equipment. Electronic voting has been the subject of much debate, and increasingly states are requiring paper ballot backups to reassure voters.
But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, a new study has raised questions about those paper ballots.
PAM FESSLER: When voters in Cuyahoga County went to the polls this spring, many of them did what lots of voters will get to this fall. They reviewed a paper ballot attached to their touch-screen machines before casting their votes electronically. That way, there were two records of the vote. But when outside monitors hired by the county checked the ballots, they found some disturbing results.
Mr. STEVEN HERTZBERG (Election Science Institute): Paper was torn was one problem. Sometimes there would be large blank spaces. There would be obvious printer jams where the printer would just print over itself many times.
FESSLER: Steven Hertzberg is with the non-partisan Election Science Institute.
Mr. HERTZBERG: And sometimes the poll workers would put the paper in backwards, and it's a thermal paper and if you put it in backwards, even though the printer prints on it, it doesn't show any visible text.
FESSLER: In other words, the paper was blank. ESI says about 10 percent of the paper ballots it sampled were uncountable, and in Ohio that's a big problem because the paper ballot is the official ballot if there's a recount.
Doug Chapin of the non-partisan electionline.org says there are serious implications, not just for Ohio, but for the rest of the country. About half of the states require that their election machines produce voter-verified paper ballots.
Mr. DOUG CHAPIN (Electionline.org): What we're not finding as these machines are used by actual voters on actual election days is that sometimes the process of getting that paper trail produced is not as easy as maybe some folks thought.
FESSLER: In fact, it's a problem paper trail opponents have raised repeatedly during the often heated debate over voting equipment. ESI also found other discrepancies in the vote count, but county officials say most of those differences can be explained.
The machine manufacturer, Diebold Election Systems, has dismissed the ESI report as severely flawed and says the company stands by its equipment. Mark Radke is Diebold's director of marketing and public relations.
Mr. MARK RADKE (Diebold Election Systems): Forty-six of the 47 counties in Ohio that have used our touch-screen equipment with the voter verifiable paper audit trail, they used it very successfully, and many of these jurisdictions have already run numerous recounts.
FESSLER: And had no difficulties. Radke thinks the main problem in Cuyahoga County was poorly trained poll workers. Indeed, ESI found that the workers were often confused about how to operate the new machines. One poll worker was Candice Hoke, a law professor at Cleveland State University who also helped to conduct a separate review of the election. She says it wasn't just a matter of bad training, but of the equipment itself.
Professor CANDICE HOKE (Cleveland State University): If people were to open these printers and to see how they're put together and how finicky they are, I think that they might to conclusion that they need to be made better.
FESSLER: She says Diebolt's argument that other jurisdictions haven't had similar problems begs the issue, in part because no other county has been studied so closely.
Professor HOKE: Elections are a time of high pressure, particularly at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, and these machines should be able to work without having to be massaged and tinkered with over and over during the day.
FESSLER: Michael Vu is Cuyahoga's elections director. He admits the county has experienced some growing pains as it moves to more sophisticated technology. It plans to spend $700,000 on more poll worker training. But Vu thinks even with the glitches, the new machines are an improvement over previously used punch cards.
Mr. MICHAEL VU (Election Director, Cuyahoga County, Ohio): One of the arguments for the paper trail is that voters could verify against what was coming off of the electric voting devices, but it creates other logistical problems.
FESSLER: And he says in the event of a recount, the county can always recreate the paper trail using electronically stored results. But Candice Hoke says that defeats the purpose of having a paper ballot verified by the voter, and she's not sure it will hold up in court. She and a lot of elections officials across the country are now waiting to see what happens in November.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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