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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

machines: oh the many ways they can fail


The elections staff had collected electronic copies of the votes on memory cards and taken them to the main office, where dozens of workers inside a secure, glass-encased room fed them into the “GEMS server,” a gleaming silver Dell desktop computer that tallies the votes.

Then at 10 p.m., the server suddenly froze up and stopped counting votes. Cuyahoga County technicians clustered around the computer, debating what to do. A young, business-suited employee from Diebold — the company that makes the voting machines used in Cuyahoga — peered into the screen and pecked at the keyboard. No one could figure out what was wrong. So, like anyone faced with a misbehaving computer, they simply turned it off and on again. Voilà: It started working — until an hour later, when it crashed a second time.

...

so many printers had jammed that 20 percent of the machines involved in the recounted races lacked paper copies of some of the votes. They weren’t lost, technically speaking; Platten could hit “print” and a machine would generate a replacement copy. But she had no way of proving that these replacements were, indeed, what the voters had voted. She could only hope the machines had worked correctly.

...

In the last three election cycles, touch-screen machines have become one of the most mysterious and divisive elements in modern electoral politics. Introduced after the 2000 hanging-chad debacle, the machines were originally intended to add clarity to election results. But in hundreds of instances, the result has been precisely the opposite: they fail unpredictably, and in extremely strange ways; voters report that their choices “flip” from one candidate to another before their eyes; machines crash or begin to count backward; votes simply vanish.

An extensive New York Times Magazine report from January 6, 2008: Can You Count on Voting Machines?

And these are just the obvious, visible ways in which machines can fail.
There are many other silent ways in which the machines could fail internally that you would never detect.

You can move to optical mark-sense, but these are still machines:
* the poll workers need to get trained on them
* the paper can jam
* the scanners can fail
* the entire machine can fail

and on and on and on.

In case you think those are unlikely scenarios, they are already happening in advance voting in the United States.

The Jacksonville Times-Union reported long lines in northeast Florida, with at least two counties reporting problems with voting machines. In Duval County, 7 of 15 optical scanning machines used to count ballots had to be replaced, the newspaper reported.

Early voting suggests 2008 may see record turnout, expert says - CNN - October 21, 2008

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