Voting Technology Evolves In Electronic World Officials in many states are concerned about the reliability of electronic voting and are now moving toward systems that can provide a voter-verified paper trail. Larry Norden, author of The Machinery of Democracy, discusses the latest advances in voting technology.
NPR logo

Voting Technology Evolves In Electronic World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Voting Technology Evolves In Electronic World

Voting Technology Evolves In Electronic World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Up next, vetting your voting machines. As precincts around the country gear up for the election, there is a steady stream of reports about machines that are not working. The company formerly known as Diebold Premier Election Solutions admits that its voting machines in 34 states contain flaws that have allowed them to lose votes. A problem that the voting machine company says has been programmed into the software for ten years. The company says it will fix the problem by the November election. From New York comes the news that the state's brand new machines aren't functioning properly and are failing certification tests. New York says it will not use these machines until they do pass the test.

In Florida comes an AP story stating Palm Beach County election officials are now looking for 2500 missing ballots from the last primary they had. This is the same county that was the biggest problem spot in the infamous 2000 election. Electronic voting machines are supposed to make the long lines and the endless counting of the hanging chads a distant memory. But they're creating new problems of their own and with just two months to go until we head to the polls, what can you expect when you step behind the curtain this fall? There may not even be a curtain if you're voting electronically. Can we expect that the glitches in these new electronic voting machines will be debugged? Can we expect shorter lines at polling booths where thousands of people in some districts had to wait hours to vote the last time?

Joining me now to talk to more about it is my guest, Larry Norden, counsel and director of Voting Technology for the Democracy Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. He joins us from California. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Norden.

Dr. LARRY NORDEN (Director, Voting Technology): Thanks for having me back, Ira. I appreciate it.

FLATOW: Those problems I mentioned, troubling?

Dr. NORDEN: They are troubling. I suppose on the other hand, it's good that we're finding out about this stuff before November. The more that we're aware of the kinds of the problems that these voting machines have, the more we can prepare for them and the more that we can make sure that even if something does go wrong on election day, we have contingency plans in place to make that all votes are counted.

FLATOW: When voters go to booths this November, will they mostly be seeing electronic voting machines?

Dr. NORDEN: Well, for the most part, there are one of two basic kinds of machines that people will see if they go to vote at the polls. One are touch screen machines and I think that's what most people think of when they think of electronic voting. And that's - they're sometimes called director recording electronic voting machines. They look a little bit like ATM machines or movie kiosks that people vote on, and touch the computer screen to record their votes. And that probably will be about 35 percent of the country will vote on, maybe 40 percent. A slightly higher percentage of people will vote on what are called scan machines, and those are paper ballots that you fill out and kind of like you might fill out a lottery ticket, you fill in bubbles usually. And then that piece of paper gets scanned in into an optical scan machine. In both cases, I would say that's electronic. In both cases, that software that's recording vote totals, the difference, there are some important differences of course. With the paper ballot that's filled out, you have a paper record of the vote, as well, that you can look at.

FLATOW: All right. Stay with us, Larry. We're going to come back and talk with Larry Norden about problems with voting machines, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Also in Second Life you can get your avatar to ask a question, it's Science Friday. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break. I'm Ira Flatow, this is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of Talk of the Nation theme)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the new electronic voting machines with Larry Norden of the Democracy Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. And Larry, let's talk about - I interrupted you - you said there was an important difference between these two types of machines and that one had a paper trail and one did not.

Dr. NORDEN: Well, in one case, you're filling out a paper ballot that then gets read by a scanner, a computer and if there are problems with the machines for instance, if they break down or if they somehow miscount, you have the paper ballots. If they break down, there shouldn't be long lines because you should still be able to fill out the paper ballot, put it in the ballot box and you can count it later. If the machine miscounts in some way, you have the paper ballot backup to look at to hand count the votes. The other type of machine that I mentioned is the touch screen machine. Some of those have paper trails also - some of them don't, some of them do. For many of them, there's a printed record of your votes that the voter gets to see, that's on the side of the machine. So some of those have paper trails that you can look at as well. But whether it has a paper trail or not, if the machine breaks down on election day, you have the question of how do people vote? And that's been a problem in the past. One of the things that we're recommending is that for jurisdictions that are using those touch screen machines, they make sure they have back up paper ballots in case the machines fail.

FLATOW: You also mentioned that even for the jurisdictions that are using the paper ballots that they hand out the ballots if the lines are too long. So you stand on the line and just fill it out right there in the line and you then tally it later in the machine.

Dr. NORDEN: Yeah. I mean, hopefully.

FLATOW: Because there are thousands of people last time who were turned away or waited in line for hours.

Dr. NORDEN: That's a big potential problem. It's not an easy problem to deal with and I think, there are some reluctance on the part of election officials to print out a lot of extra paper ballots in case the machines fail because most of the times, they won't and actually, under some state laws, you're not allowed to have, they don't have the paper ballots in the polling place, they have them somewhere else, some central location. But we're really pushing for in this election and there should be some lessons from the last election to make sure those paper ballots are there. So a lot of people can't wait three hours to vote. They have to go to work. Most people can't wait that long.

FLATOW: Yeah. And I guess it depends on how many machines are there. I mean, aren't we expecting a larger turnout of first time voters?

Dr. NORDEN: Yeah. That's huge for a couple of reasons. One is because, a first time voter will often take a little bit longer to vote so that can result in long lines but the other is how many machines should each polling place have? That was a problem that we saw last time. There was this big surge in areas that previously didn't have a lot of voters and there weren't enough machines there. Again, you know, if there are paper ballots available, hopefully, there'll be little voting booths, privacy booths, where people can vote and put their paper in a ballot box where it will be secured.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's take a phone call or two. We have Yancy in Oklahoma City. Hi.

YANCY (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

YANCY: I was just going to say a couple of things. One, we've had the optical scanner voting machines in Oklahoma since the mid-80's and they're extraordinarily accurate. We had our governor's race back in 2002 that was very close and the election where a secretary said don't even bother having a recount because the machines are not so inaccurate, that's it's going to overturn it. And the other thing is, I know that we had a very big ice storm here last year. My wife and I went down and we voted by candle lights because we were able to fill out the cards and leave them to be run through the machines later when there was power. I don't think you could do that with the touch screens.

FLATOW: Interesting point. Larry?

Dr. NORDEN: Yeah. I would say a couple of things about that. I think that's right. Again, what I would say, if you're using the touch screen machines, there are some advantages to the touch screen machines, lots of jurisdictions are using them. The key is, if you're going to use them, make sure you have some backup plans in case there are problems. But both systems have their pluses and their minuses. They still all run on software and I think 99 percent of the time, 99.9 percent of the time, they're accurate but even with the optical scan machines, I would say, I would want that recount done. There can be problems with the optical scan machines. We saw that recently, actually, in New Mexico where what they call the memory cards that are inserted and count the votes were making mistakes. It happens. And again, the benefit of those systems is you actually do have the paper so you can do it, so we might as well be taking advantage of that.

FLATOW: And in Florida where they had lost 2500 ballots. Were those paper ballots or electronic ballots?

Dr. NORDEN: They were paper ballots. It's unclear...

FLATOW: Still losing paper ballots.

Dr. NORDEN: Yeah. And that's something I want to emphasize. You know, there's so much focus on the technology but really, what it comes down to is having the right procedures in place. So you can go back completely on the paper if you want and hand-count them. The fact of the matter is if you don't have the right procedures in place for those paper ballots, good chain of custody, physical custody, making sure that you know where everything is. You're going to have problems with that system as well. And really one of the keys is, I think, one of the reasons why there's so much focus on technology is the procedures start getting more complicated, the more complicated the technology. But in the end, the system is only as good as the procedures you have in place and the people that are manning the systems.

FLATOW: You know, in the old days, we used to sometimes at our home, we used to be mailed what the ballot will look like, where those little levers will be and what rows and columns. Can you find out what your voting, your electronic voting machine will look like before you get in there?

Dr. NORDEN: You can. There are a couple of things that you can do. First of all, you can call your county election office or go on to the website and usually, they'll have - they should have within a few weeks of the election exactly what the ballot's going to look like, what the type of machine is that you're going to vote on. And there's also a good site,, if you go there, they have map and you can actually click on your county and it'll tell you the type of the machine that you'll be voting on and that's something I recommend people especially if it's their first time voting in a while or their county has changed their voting system.

FLATOW: And because sometimes, people will be voting on four different machines in four years, right?

Dr. NORDEN: And sometimes, there have been four different machines in the last decade, I was just in Florida and that's the case with a lot of counties there. They are actually on their third or fourth system in just the last ten years.

FLATOW: So you don't even know if you're going back to see same machine the next time.

Dr. NORDEN: That's right. That's right.

FLATOW: All right. Let's go to the phones. To Becky in San Antonio. Hi Becky.

BECKY (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

BECKY: My question is about the training that the volunteers at the polling places receive in dealing with this technology. When I voted in the Texas primary, this last go around, I sit in line for two hours and when we got to the front of the line, we realized that the individuals that had volunteered, were working really hard but clearly didn't understand a lot about the technology that they were dealing with and they didn't appear to be that experienced with it and seem to be falling out in the process quite a bit.

Dr. NORDEN: Yeah. I mean, this is a huge problem, I think. Poll workers are key to any polling place working well and that there are a couple of issues that we've got. One is with so much turnover in the types of machines we're using very often. In some places, like Florida's had, a change in the system, four systems in some counties in a decade or two. And in other places, you've been using the same voting system for 40-50 years and you have poll workers who have been there for 40-50 years and suddenly, you've got a new system that they're not familiar with. And one of the challenges we have is to get good people to volunteer, to work at the polls and as we have this more technologically complex systems, hopefully have people that have some technical abilities that are volunteering at the polls as well.

FLATOW: Becky, do you think you can go in and show them how to do it when you get there?

BECKY: I was ready by the time I got out there.

FLATOW: There are probably people standing in line that are more technically savvy sometimes than the folks sitting at the card tables, you know?


FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Becky. Thanks for calling.

BECKY: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. I know, Larry, that you study ballot design and that always has, since 2000, has been, you know, butterfly ballots, all kinds of ballot designs. I think I'm pushing one, I'm getting something else. Are there still problems even electronically with the design?

Dr. NORDEN: There are, there are. And again, I keep coming back to this, but this again comes back to the idea that we've had all this change in technology in this short period of time. And I think everybody, in some sense, the purchase of all these new machines was caused by a ballot design problem, was caused by this butterfly ballot in 2000, and the thought was we'll get some new technology and we won't have these problems anymore, but we have in every election since then. We have seen somewhere a ballot design problem. Probably the most famous recent example was in 2006, in Sarasota County. Ironically enough to, in a race to replace Catherine Harris in Congress, the lay-out of the ballot, it was on a touch-screen machine and the way it was laid out, it was very hard to see the congressional race.

In a race that was decided by about 350 votes, you had 18,000 people miss that race. So ballot design is still critical, and again, especially because so many people are seeing new systems for the first time. They may not be familiar with that design. It is really important that we pay attention to it. One of the things that I've been doing is I've been traveling in the country, is we've been encouraging usability testing of ballots. Usability testing is something we do in the private sector all the time. You're looking at a website, they probably have people, there've been some tests to make sure the people can use it and understand it. The Census does it when they're putting together questions, they cut them to make sure the people can understand them. It's not something we do with ballots, and...

FLATOW: Sure. Why not bring a ballot machine to senior citizens' homes, and let them see that before they get there, because they are the most untechnically savvy people.

Mr. NORDEN: It would be a great thing to do, you get tremendous feedback. They're three groups, everybody is impacted by a confusing design as we saw in 2000 with the butterfly ballots but there are three groups that are most affected by it, elderly voters, new voters who are going to have a lot of it in this next election, and low-income voters. And we should really be focusing to make sure that ballots are something that everybody can do this.

FLATOW: We have a question from Second Life from Little Rock, Tim Sommer(ph) says, I'm wondering how these new electronic voting machines accessible to people with vision-impairments, how is that going to be handled?

Mr. NORDEN: Well, that has been - there's a lot of negative talk about electronic voting machines and there's reason to have lots of concerns, security concerns, reliability concerns. In one area where there has been some improvement and I think there can be a lot more is for people with disabilities, for people with vision problems. A lot of these machines can be of great help, they can have audio components, a lot of these machines where somebody who has low vision or can't see at all can listen to headphones so that they can vote through it. Some of these machines allow magnification. So there are some, you know, technology obviously has a lot of benefits as long as we use it properly. We know how to use it. So there are - there have been some improvements in that area.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is the number. Let's go to Philadelphia, Lynn(ph) in Philly. Hi Lynn.

LYNN (Caller): Hi, yes, I'm Lynn Landis(ph). I've been writing about this issue since 2002. And I'm frankly shocked that Mr. Norden is defending the computer count of votes because he knows as well as any computer programmer, that those votes can be shifted, substituted by the million, by these handful of companies that are controlling the election account. And we'll never, nobody will ever know what even happened. So why not do the paper ballots that are hand-counted at the polls on election day, and return some transparency back to the process.

FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody, this is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. Talking with Larry Norden of Democracy Program at NYU. Larry.

Mr. NORDEN: Yeah. I'm actually I'm not defending electronic voting. I think electronic voting is a reality, that's what we're dealing with. There have been some benefits, there are some problems. I actually want to report about the potential problems with electronic voting, how votes can be lost and actually even manipulated with corrupt software. I think the key is to make that process as transparent as possible. You have a paper trail on most machines now, some kind of paper record. That should be used, we should be - we should be doing audits, we are in a few states but not enough where we're taking some percentage of randomly of those paper records and making sure that the machine record matches the paper record.

LYNN: Well just one comment. Our constitutional right is to a direct access to a ballot, not have to work our way to a machine in order to register a vote. And secondly, to have that vote counted openly and properly with the full public oversight. And when these machines are being used, you cannot have transparency and machines in the same polling place. It's been - they don't work together.

FLATOW: Thanks Lynn.

Mr. NORDEN: Well, one thing I would encourage and I mean that is certainly what we're doing at the Brennan Center. We're trying to make sure that it happens as much as possible is that the whole process of counting and double checking in there, there are redundant records everywhere for these machines. The number of people have signed in, should be checked against the number of votes that have been totaled in machines. All these machines print total tapes at the end of the day. Everything should be looked at and the whole process has got to be as public to everyone as possible.

FLATOW: Is the code public?

Mr. NORDEN: It's not; it's not as public as it should be. That's for sure. That has been a huge problem with vendors. In 2006, I mentioned this dispute over 18,000 votes having gone missing in a Congressional race that was decided by 389 votes or something like that. There was a lawsuit over access to the code and the ability to look at it, and the court actually ruled that this was that the code was a trade secret and that the litigants couldn't look at it. So, you know, that has been a real big problem. The vendors have been reluctant to share that information, saying it a trade secret and -

FLATOW: Have some open source that everybody can look at.

Mr. NORDEN: Yeah, that is a potential solution, that something that a lot of people have been asking to have done. So far, nobody's been able to come up with a system that has passed a test certification to do that.

FLATOW: We're working on finding those people. Let me tell you.

Mr. NORDEN: That's right.

FLATOW: There are people working on very simple codes of just a few hundred lines, because I understand that there are thousands and thousands of lines of code.

Mr. NORDEN: Yeah, that's right. And I mean that's one of the reasons on these machines, there are so many thousands of lines of code. The whole testing process I think it's gotten a lot better, but still isn't as transparent as it should be. And when you've got so many thousand lines of code, not only is it difficult for it to be public and for people to understand it. It's much more likely that there are going to be software bugs, other kinds of programming errors like they had as you referenced early on in Ohio where their machines are losing votes. And it's not - it's very difficult when you're testing that to actually find every potential problem when you got so many thousands of lines of code.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Larry Norden who is counsel and director of voting technology for the Democracy Program at New York University Center for Justice. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us.

Mr. NORDEN: Thanks so much, Ira.

FLATOW: And we're hoping like you are that things will go very well this November. But it's still a testing process I'm sure.

Mr. NORDEN: It is. It is. And the my key is going to be, like I said, I think we're more and more aware of this problem, and the more we're aware of it hopefully, the more action will be taken to make sure that we, if there are problems that we can take care of them when they happen.

FLATOW: And we will be following up on this issue and all during the election season and keeping abreast of new developments in voting technology. Stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break. I'm Ira Flatow, this is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.