Officials In The Dark About Voting Machine Glitches Problems with voting machines are still popping up 10 years after the controversial presidential vote in Florida. A new report from the New York University School of Law finds that election officials are often unaware of previous problems with the equipment they use.

Officials In The Dark About Voting Machine Glitches

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's follow up on what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called a royal screw up. He was referring to a new electronic voting system that caused delays and complications for New York voters. A decade after the Florida presidential vote in 2000, problems with voting machines are still popping up.

According to a new report out today, one reason for the continued trouble is that election officials are often unaware of previous problems with the same equipment.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Earlier this year, election officials in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, were testing optical scan machines shortly before the state's primary. For no apparent reason, some of the machines froze up and even shut down - right in the middle of counting ballots.

Election Director Jane Platten turned to technicians from the machine vendor for help.

Ms. JANE PLATTEN (Director, Cuyahoga County Board of Elections): And they looked at us with the blank face that I've seen so often when we've encountered problems with voting systems.

FESSLER: They were as perplexed as she was. So Platten did what's she's done before.

Ms. PLATTEN: I had my staff hurry up and get on the phone with every other jurisdiction in the country who uses the DS 200 system. We called California. We called Wisconsin. We called Florida, and we found several counties in Florida where they had experienced this problem.

FESSLER: 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 were lost. She says the vendor knew about the problem in Florida, but believed it was unrelated.

Mr. LAWRENCE NORDEN (Brennan Center for Justice, New York University Law School): We've given an unprecedented role in running our elections to private companies.

FESSLER: Lawrence Norden is with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, which released the new report. He says what happened in Cuyahoga County's not uncommon, that election officials often learn after the fact that others have had difficulties with the same equipment they're using, like when officials in Humboldt County, California discovered a problem with their Diebold voting machines in 2008, only to discover that the company knew about it four years earlier.

Mr. NORDEN: 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.

FESSLER: So, the Brennan Center is recommending a federally run, searchable database where voting system failures can be compiled and that vendors be required to report quickly and alert customers to any flaws.

That would be a welcome change for Rokey Suleman, elections director for Washington, D.C. 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.

Mr. ROKEY SULEMAN (Elections Director, Washington, D.C.): Vendors typically tell election officials, you know, what they feel they need to know. They don't always want to disclose flaws in their equipment.

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

Mr. SULEMAN: And they went, oh, those kinds of issues. And then they came forth with, you know, no, these are some of the issues and some of the solutions we have to mitigate those problems.

FESSLER: For their part, vendors say they agree with the Brennan Center recommendations - at least in theory - that they already try to alert customers about potential problems.

Howard Cramer is Vice President of Dominion Voting Systems, now one of the largest voting companies in the U.S.

Mr. HOWARD CRAMER (Vice President, Dominion Voting Systems): It's our responsibility, and we take it seriously. I think where that ball gets dropped is exactly that - just in the line of communication, people are busy, it's -Election Day is a couple of weeks away.

FESSLER: So his company is building its own website source for customers to report and find information about its equipment. Cramer notes that the federal Election Assistance Commission has also started requiring such reporting on the voting machines it certifies for use around the country. In fact, the EAC this summer issued an advisory about the problems encountered in Cuyahoga County. It also gave the manufacturer's suggested fix, which turns out to be something most computer users already know: make sure that the machine is completely off first, then start it up again.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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