E-Voting: A True Story

Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry reports on her experience at a California election precinct on how new electronic voting machines are personally affecting average Americans seeking to exercise the franchise—and it's not a pretty picture.

Tekla S. Perry

You'd think if e-voting would work anywhere, that place would be in the heart of Silicon Valley. Not this year. I voted "touchscreen" Tuesday night, and it was anything but easy. I got in line at my polling place near downtown Palo Alto at 7 p.m. Okay, I probably should have voted earlier, but I've never seen more than three or four people in line no matter what time I'd voted; so I didn't worry too much about squeezing a trip to the polls into an already busy day. Big mistake.

About 40 people stood in a line that circled a large conference room and straggled out the door and down the sidewalk; the line was growing quickly. Explanations and rumors spread down the line.

"There were seven machines, all are down except two."

"If you ask for paper ballots, you can move up."

"They're out of paper ballots."

"No, they're out of English language ballots. If you want to vote in Chinese or Tagalog, you can use a paper ballot."

"Anybody know what's yes and no in Tagalog?"

"Forget it, now they're out of ballot envelopes."

At 7:25, the poll supervisor came out and said that, at this point, the wait would be at least an hour and that anyone still in line at 8 p.m. was legally entitled to vote. However, he continued, we might consider getting in line somewhere else, because he expected the last two electronic voting machines to fail at any minute and wasn't sure at that point what he could do.

The two senior citizens waiting patiently in front of me left. I offered to hold their places while they sat down somewhere, but they declined. "We just don't have the stamina," one said.

More paper ballots and envelopes arrived. People broke from the line and started filling them out. Some stuffed their ballots directly into the ballot box without getting back in line to sign in. The poll supervisor warned that such votes wouldn't be counted; given there didn't seem to be markings on the ballot envelopes indicating whether or not the voter had signed in, those of us in line weren't sure what he meant. What will happen when the number of ballots in the box is higher than the number of official voters? At this point, those with paper ballots didn't seem to be moving any faster in the chaos, so I decided to fill out a paper ballot but hope a touchscreen machine would free up.

In the center of the table, an old stylus, previously used in punch-card voting, still anchored one of the how-to-vote displays. Those of us in line talked wistfully of the short lines back in the days of punch-card voting and reasoned that, in hindsight, hanging chads weren't so bad after all. The poll supervisor watched the two remaining voting machines nervously. He said that around 5 p.m. the printers on the seven original machines had run out of paper. Since the devices are locked, the paper can't be changed. He had two back-up printers he had been able to swap in, hence the two functioning machines. But after those printers ran out of paper, there was nothing left to do. The line continued to grow.

Shortly before 8:00 p.m., the line longer than ever, an election worker arrived with a carload of printers. He installed two; the others were needed elsewhere. Now, four of the seven machines functioned.

At 8:00 p.m., the election supervisor asked the dozens of people standing in the relatively orderly line to crowd into the room. He locked the door. There were only five or six people ahead of me.

At 8:20 p.m., I voted touchscreen.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.