Frequent readers of IEEE Spectrum are doubtless aware of the concerns voiced about the potential ramifications of using electronic voting machines. (For more look here and here.) So on 14 September, when it was reported that a glitch with electronic voting machines at a polling station in Pelham, N.Y. (a New York City suburb), caused voting to be delayed from the scheduled 6 a.m. start until around 8 a.m., these fears were raised again.
But as it turns out, the delay in casting ballots in the primary elections—for offices ranging from governor and U.S. senator to county committee member—was not the result of some nefarious plot. The cause was part of the comparatively low-tech solution to e-voting machines’ accounting problems. According to Doug Coleti, Republican commissioner at the Board of Elections in Westchester County, which includes Pelham, there was a problem with generating the startup tape that Dominion Voting Systems’s ImageCast voting machine is supposed to spit out from its thermal printer when it’s turned on. The nearly 3-meter-long sheet is important to election inspectors; it’s what they use to verify that the machine is programmed to record votes for each of the races being decided in the election district to which it has been assigned, and that tallies for each contest begin the day at zero. Consequently, the machine won't accept voter ballots until the printout is complete.
The ImageCast is an optical scanner that tabulates a voter’s choices electronically when he or she inserts a paper ballot filled out by hand. All the ballots are stored inside a locked compartment in the machine in the event that a computer error necessitates a re-scan or a manual recount.
Coleti says that the delay was the only known glitch out of 1000 such machines that were used for the first time yesterday in Westchester County, which is home to 600 000 registered voters. He characterizes the snafu as “the normal user error that we’re accustomed to,” noting that from time to time, poll workers had problems opening up the old school mechanical behemoths that recorded a voter’s selections with the pull of a lever.
Overall, Coleti is optimistic about the machines’ use, but says he would have liked to have seen the full use of the e-voting system’s technical capabilities. One example he cited is uploading and dissemination of unofficial election results via the Internet the instant the polls close. But he notes that New York State election laws prohibit it.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.