Programming errors and inexperience with electronic voting machines frustrated poll workers in hundreds of precincts early Tuesday, delaying voters in Indiana and Ohio and leaving some in Florida with little choice but use paper ballots instead.
In Cleveland, voters rolled their eyes as election workers fumbled with new touchscreen machines that they couldn’t get to start properly.
“We got five machines — one of them’s got to work,” said Willette Scullank, a trouble shooter from the Cuyahoga County, Ohio, elections board.
In Indiana’s Marion County, about 175 of 914 precincts turned to paper because poll workers didn’t know how to run the machines, said Marion County Clerk Doris Ann Sadler. She said it could take most of the day to fix all of the machine-related issues.
Election officials in Delaware County, Ind., planned to seek a court order to extend voting after an apparent computer error prevented voters from casting ballots in 75 precincts there. Delaware County Clerk Karen Wenger said the cards that activate the machines were programmed incorrectly.
“We are working with precincts one-by-one over the telephone to get the problem fixed,” Wenger said.
New machines cause headaches
At the Election Protection Coalition phone bank in Washington D.C., where operators are fielding calls from voters complaining about poll troubles, electronic voting machine expert Matt Zimmerman said callers are complaining about the situation in Indiana. Such glitches were not unexpected, he said.
"You have a lot of new machines in a lot of places, including in Indiana. Some people just don't know what they are doing," said Zimmerman, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who is working at the Election Protection Coalition phone bank.
"They may not have delivered the right equipment, or they couldn't turn the stuff on, or it may be they didn't have the poll workers properly trained. So you end up with situations like this," Zimmerman said.
Some watchdogs expected problems
With a third of Americans voting on new equipment and voters navigating new registration databases and changing ID rules, election watchdogs worried about polling problems even before the voting began.
“This is largely what I expected,” said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks voting changes. “With as much change as we had, expecting things to go absolutely smoothly at the beginning of the day is too optimistic. Every problem is one problem too many, but some problems are always to be expected on election days.”
A precinct in Orange Park, Fla., turned to paper ballots because of machine problems. In Illinois, some voters found the new equipment cumbersome.
“People seem to be very confused about how to use the new system,” said Bryan Blank, a 33-year-old librarian from Oak Park, Ill. “There was some early morning disarray.”
Deadline for many election changes
Although turnout generally is lower in midterm elections, this year was the deadline for many of the election changes enacted in the wake of the Florida balloting chaos of 2000.
The 2002 Help America Vote Act required or helped states to replace outdated voting equipment, establish statewide voter registration databases, require better voter identification and provide provisional ballots so qualified voters can have a say if something goes wrong.
“There has not been an election in decades that has had this much change,” said Wendy Weiser, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.
Control of Congress is also at stake this year, with all 435 House seat and 33 of 100 Senate seats are up for grabs, along with 36 governors’ offices. Because individual congressional races are generally decided by fewer votes than presidential contests, any problems at the polls are more likely to affect the outcome.
According to Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, 32 percent of registered voters were using equipment added since the 2004 elections.
Nearly half of all voters were using optical-scan systems that ask them to fill in blanks, with ballots then fed into a computer. Thirty-eight percent were casting votes on touchscreen machines that have been criticized as susceptible to hackers.
Election experts say both types of voting machines are bound to cause trouble. Workers at a precinct in Loveland, Ohio, had to feed paper ballots into a slot to be scanned later because the machine couldn’t read them.
Voting-machine vendors said they had thousands of workers on to handle any problems. The Justice Department also deployed poll watchers at potential trouble spots.
“There will be isolated issues throughout the nation I’m sure,” said Michelle Shafer, spokeswoman for Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. “That’s just the normal part of elections. Overall we feel confident things will go pretty well.”
Just getting to the right polling place with all the right identification posed a challenge for some voters.
Many states established voter registration databases for the first time, and many found problems as they tried to match drivers’ license and Social Security data with the voter rolls. Someone may have a middle initial or use “Jr.” on one list but not the other, and data entry errors also occur.
Although not required by federal law, some states passed new voter identification requirements, some calling for a government-issued photo ID rather than just a utility bill.
Courts have struck down ID requirements in several states, but Missouri’s chief elections official, Robin Carnahan, said she was still asked three times to show a photo ID, despite a court ruling striking the requirement down there.
In one of the worst fiascoes, Maryland election officials forgot to send the cards primary voters needed to activate electronic machines at their polling places, and some voters had to cast provisional ballots on scraps of paper.
Baltimore County election director Jacqueline McDaniel said poll workers there had a few problems on Tuesday — one left part of the equipment in his car; another couldn’t find the electronic poll books because the worker was looking in the wrong place.
Some New Mexico voters complained they had received phone calls giving them incorrect information about where in vote.
Several Florida counties stocked up ahead of the election with extra voting machines, paper ballots and poll workers on standby. Apart from the state’s infamous chads in 2000, Florida voters have struggled with poorly trained poll workers and precincts opening late or closing early.
Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb said she didn’t expect serious problems with the touchscreen voting machines Tuesday.
“History has shown that the machines are far more accurate than paper so we’re quite confident in it,” Cobb said. “There is absolutely no reason to believe that there will be any security issues, any hacking going on.”