By Kim Zetter
Oct, 31, 2006
Six years ago the world watched dumbfounded as the Florida 2000 fiasco
exposed the messy underbelly of U.S. election administration. Since then
states have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new electronic
voting equipment to ensure that the nation would never experience such
But two recent and lengthy reports examining this year's May primary in
Cuyahoga County, Ohio -- a pivotal state where the electoral votes gave
President Bush his second win in 2004 -- make it clear that Florida-like
fiascos are far from behind us.
The reports, totaling more than 500 pages, paint a disturbing picture of
how million-dollar equipment and security safeguards can quickly be
undone by poor product design, improper election procedures and
inadequate training. From destroyed ballots and vote totals that didn't
add up to lost equipment and breaches in security protocols, Cuyahoga's
primary is a perfect study in how not to run an election.
The findings have ominous national implications. Cuyahoga County could
play an important role in deciding two races in next week's election
that will help decide which party controls the Senate and House. But one
of the reports concluded that problems in the county were so extensive
that meaningful improvements likely could not be achieved before that
election, or even before the 2008 presidential election.
Moreover, few voting activists and election experts believe the problems
are unique to Cuyahoga.
"I suspect that Cuyahoga County may be below average (in terms of how
well it ran its election), but if you lift up the rock and look at
election administration across the country, you'll see the same thing
elsewhere," says David Dill, Stanford computer scientist and founder of
VerifiedVoting.org, a proponent of paper-verified elections.
The problems in Cuyahoga County, a heavily Democratic county that
encompasses Cleveland, began with a glitch in the design of the
optical-scan ballots -- black lines separating sections of the ballot
were too thick, and the fill-in bubbles were in the wrong place,
preventing scanners from reading them.
The gaffe caused a six-day delay in election results, but wasn't
insurmountable. The county hired an army of office temp workers to
recast the votes from the 18,000 optical-scan ballots onto touch-screen
machines -- both types of voting machines, made by Diebold Election
Systems, were used in the county for the first time in the primary.
On the surface, that seemed to solve the problem. But a post-election
audit of votes and election procedures revealed deeper issues in the way
the state's most populous county ran its primary -- problems that, if
not fixed, could open the state to serious legal challenges from
candidates and voters in a close election.
Among the findings in one report  (.pdf) prepared by the Cuyahoga
Election Review Panel:
* Due to poor chain of custody for supplies and equipment, 812
voter-access cards (which voters place in touch-screen machines to
cast their ballot) were lost, along with 215 card encoders, which
program the voter-access cards. Three hundred thirteen keys to the
voting machines' memory-card compartments, where votes are stored,
also went missing.
* Officials set up two user accounts on the computer running
vote-tabulation software, then assigned one password to both accounts
and allowed multiple people to use them, thwarting any effort to
identify individuals who might access and alter the system.
* Sixty Board of Election employees took touch-screen machines home a
weekend before the election to test a procedure for transmitting data
on election night.
* The election board hired 69 taxis to transport observers to precincts
to collect memory cards and paper rolls on election night. But many
cab drivers ended up gathering the materials themselves, and about
half the cabs returned to the warehouse with election data, but no
* In at least 79 precincts the number of voters who signed the poll
books didn't match the number of ballots cast. At least eight
precincts had more ballots cast than registered voters. Because some
polling places served several precincts, some of the discrepancies are
explained by voters being directed to the wrong machines, an error
that did not result in uncounted votes. But even when investigators
tallied ballots and signatures for all precincts in a polling place,
15 locations still had mismatches. In one case investigators found 342
more voters than ballots.
There were also problems with tracking the voting machines themselves,
according to a second report (.pdf) produced by the California-based
Election Science Institute. ESI was hired before the election by
Cuyahoga's Board of Commissioners to audit the election and measure the
accuracy, reliability and usability of the county's new voting machines.
Out of 467 touch-screen machines assigned to 145 precincts that ESI
audited, officials couldn't locate 29 machines after the election,
despite days of searching. And 24 machines that were found had no data
on them. "All their paperwork says (the machines) were deployed to
polling locations but we can't figure out why there's no election data
on them," says ESI founder Steve Hertzberg.
It's possible the machines were sent to polls but never used -- perhaps
they malfunctioned or voter turnout was so low the machines weren't
needed. But so far no explanation has been forthcoming. Cuyahoga County
election director Michael Vu responded to initial questions from Wired
News, but did not respond to follow-up questions about the missing
machines and data
Experts say the chaos in Cuyahoga is a bellwether of broader
election-administration problems nationwide.
"It should be a general wake-up call for all states and localities to
make sure they have addressed these problems in their statutes and
procedures to make sure that they don't run into the same problems,"
says Thad Hall, a political science professor at the University of Utah
who assisted with the ESI report. "People should be taking all of this
Beyond sloppy procedures, the ESI report found technological problems
with the printers installed on the county's 5,000 new Diebold
touch-screen machines. The printers produce the voter-verified paper
audit trail, or VVPAT, mandated by a new Ohio law.
The printer problems turned up when the ESI team set out to examine the
accuracy of the touch-screen machines. The team compared four sets of
vote data from a sampling of 145 precincts. The data included electronic
votes recorded on removable memory cards (used to tally the official
count); electronic votes on flash memory inside the touch-screen
machines; individual ballots on the paper-audit trail rolls; and a
summary total of those ballots printed at the end of the paper roll.
Although the majority of the paper rolls were easy to read, 40 rolls
contained ballots that were physically compromised in some way: Rolls
were crumpled accordion-style due to paper jams; ballots were printed
atop one another, making them illegible; rolls were torn and taped.
Eighty-seven rolls were missing entirely.
The compromised ballots and missing paper rolls demonstrate that the
paper trails voting activists spent three years pressuring states to
mandate could be useless in a recount. Per Ohio's recount law, and laws
in 14 other states that mandate paper trails, the paper roll is the
official ballot in a recount.
But the law doesn't address what to do when paper records are illegible.
An administrative rule from the secretary of state says the official
ballot would revert to the electronic record if the paper trail were
illegible or destroyed, which, in theory, would get every vote counted.
VerifiedVoting.org's Dill cautions that if just 10 percent of an
election's paper rolls are compromised, the purpose of the paper is
defeated, and a door is once again open for someone to rig an election.
"If someone wanted to fix an election they could program the machine to
produce a certain number of faulty paper ballots so that (officials) had
to count the electronic ones instead," Dill says.
The machines should be designed to shut down if the printer jams or poll
workers load the paper improperly, says Dill.
Dan Tokaji, assistant professor of law at Ohio State University, says
the issue of illegible ballots and conflicting recount laws clearly
weren't well thought out in advance by Ohio lawmakers.
"It's quite possible we could see litigation over this issue in the
event of a close election," he says, noting that the same problem could
arise in other states. "We know about the problems with paper trails in
Cuyahoga, but in other counties both in and out of Ohio we really
haven't done a careful assessment. So I don't think we know how
widespread the problems with the VVPAT system are."
And unfortunately, he says, most people don't worry about the problems
or fix them until after there's a blowup similar to what occurred in
Vote discrepancies also turn up in the ESI audit, and voting activists
seized on this aspect of the investigation as evidence that there were
problems with Diebold's software. On about 80 paper rolls, the votes
totaled from the individual ballots didn't match the summary of votes at
the end of the roll. In most cases the count was off by one to five
votes, but in some it was off by more than 25.
Here, too, paper jams were the culprit, says Gary Smith, director of
elections in Forsyth County, Georgia, who led the paper count for ESI.
Printer problems led to missing and illegible ballots, causing the final
numbers to be higher than the sum of the individual ballots. When his
team printed fresh paper records from the memory cards, the totals from
individual ballots matched the summaries at the end of the rolls.
The ESI audit also uncovered mismatches between paper-vote totals and
the digital totals from the memory cards, and 13 cases in which the
removable memory cards and the flash memory inside the machines didn't
Diebold said there are innocent explanations for why memory card totals
didn't match flash memory totals. Eleven of the discrepancies were a
side effect of election workers' transference of botched optical-scan
votes onto touch-screen machines. Because they failed to also add the
optical-scan votes to the flash-memory data from those machines, the two
sets of data didn't match when ESI compared them.
The other two discrepancies occurred when poll workers placed memory
cards in the wrong machines, then moved the cards to the correct
machines after voters had already cast a few ballots on the machines --
a switch that did not affect the voting tally, but seriously complicated
the audit afterward. When election staff gave ESI data for those
machines, they were unaware that some votes on these memory cards were
backed up on the flash memory of other machines.
Cuyahoga County election director Vu says his staff has verified
Diebold's conclusions but ESI has not had a chance to independently
verify the explanations. However, all these issues point to the most
important finding from Cuyahoga County, says Hertzberg: it was so
difficult for ESI to get accurate and complete data to conduct its
ESI had been assured by Vu's office that the data ESI was auditing did
not include optical-scan votes, says Hertzberg. In fact, ESI had to
request data from Vu's office six times because it kept getting the
wrong data, or data that was tainted with optical-scan votes.
Vu's staff also had a dozen different versions of the same vote data but
no file-management system or naming conventions to keep track of them or
explain why so many versions existed, says Hertzberg. "So these guys
were sitting there trying to search for which data set to give us and
they couldn't figure it out," he says.
Political scientist Michael Alvarez of the Caltech/MIT Voting Project,
who helped with the ESI report, agrees: Although many people focused on
the vote discrepancies, the fact that ESI found it so difficult to
conduct an audit is the biggest problem, and it doesn't bode well for
what could happen in November or in a close presidential race.
"An independent entity, be they ESI or be they anybody else ... should
be able to walk in and very easily replicate that election outcome,"
Alvarez says. "That's the sort of thing that is what induces voter and
candidate and media confidence in the process."
Vu says his office was overwhelmed with the task of adjusting to new
procedures and equipment. His staff also never anticipated that poll
workers would swap memory cards between machines; they're addressing
this issue in poll worker training for November. "For the most part," he
says, "the majority of the county did relatively well."
Hertzberg worries that things could be worse Nov. 7 because turnout is
expected to be larger than in the primary. Cuyahoga has 1 million
registered voters. Hertzberg urged Vu to develop and practice a manual
count procedure before Election Day, but says there's been no movement.
"It's going to take time," Vu says. "You can't go from having problems
in one election to perfection in the next election." Vu says he has made
some changes for November, but mentions only issues with poll worker
training, pay and recruitment.
The county Board of Elections and Board of Commissioners did recently
appoint The Center for Election Integrity at Cleveland State University
to monitor progress in the implementation of reforms recommended by the
two reports, and the group will monitor the county's actual conduct
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