September 27, 2004 | By Matt Zimmerman

Your Vote Is Safe - We've Got Paperclips

Along with more than two dozen eager international election observers, I recently had the pleasure of observing a live demonstration of one of the controversial electronic voting machines that are in place to record and tabulate millions of American votes on election day.

Results, as they say, were mixed.


Approximately five minutes into the audience participation portion of the Election Systems & Software (ES&S) demonstration, the iVotronic machine inexplicably froze; no amount of touch-screen prodding could elicit a response. Not a problem, the ES&S presenter assured bemused observers. All that was required was a system reboot, a bit of technical wizardry that was accomplished with the assistance of a straightened paperclip.

One might be encouraged if polling places around the country were staffed by a cadre of MacGyvers, but that's not the case. According to the US Election Assistance Commission, the average age of a US poll worker is 72, and while their dedication is to be commended, many poll workers in the upcoming election will have received little training on this new technology. Inadequate training for poll workers has been cited as a significant contributor to many of the problems seen recently with electronic voting machines, including problems with ballots and voter-access cards. It will indeed be interesting to see how many November voting machine problems will be traceable to training issues. The percentage, I fear, won't be small.

But the demonstration snafu also raises a host of other obvious questions. If vendors can't get the machines to work properly during controlled demos, what should we expect on election day? Recall the embarrassing moment in August when Sequoia Voting Systems, demonstrating their new paper trail-equipped voting machine, produced an electronic vote tally that differed from the paper trail...with the electronic vote tally failing to count Spanish-language votes, no less. And how do we know what will happen to votes if such a system crash happens on election day - will the machines accurately retain the electronic records? The answer I got during the demonstration was the predictable "trust us." Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to do that -- paperclips notwithstanding.

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