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E-voting worries focus on failures, not fraud

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Major electronic voting machine problems occurred in at least six US states during the country's midterm elections, underscoring that system failure, not fraud, is the biggest issue facing future races, voting-rights activists and technologists said this week.

Machine problems delayed voting in many precincts in Colorado, Florida, Indiana, and Ohio, requiring election officials to keep the polls open late. Problems in Montana delayed the final tally of the results in that state, and in New Jersey, about five per cent of machines had some sort of problem, though the issues were characterized as minor in news reports.

While the Democratic sweep of the elections may have quelled early partisan concerns regarding fraud, widespread machines failures are not any more acceptable, said Eugene Spafford, a professor of computer science at Purdue University and the chair of the US Public Policy Committee for the Association for Computing Machinery.

"From the standpoint of a technologist, we can and should do better," Spafford said. "As a country, we have to do better than machines that can fail and are impossible to audit."

The US midterm elections were the most recent test for electronic voting machines. Many critics warned of the danger of fraud prior to Tuesday's election. The Democrats sweeping win across the nation appears to be the best rebuttal to the worries of some partisan critics. For example, before the election, some Democrats -most notably U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)- seemed prepared to blame a loss on vote fraud.

"That is the only variable in this," Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Will we have an honest count?''

However, the danger of a elections being hacked are less of a concern among nonpartisan critics than machine failure, said Courtenay Bhatia, president of election watchdog VerifiedVoting.org.

"The real issue is not fraud," Bhatia said. "The real issue is transparency and whether we have enough transparency to know that our elections are accurate. If problems occur, they are likely to be from errors due to failure or administering the system incorrectly."

While obvious fraud did not occur, software bugs, hardware failure, and poll workers' errors were not in short supply - such problems peppered the electoral landscape on Tuesday.

One widespread phenomenon, at least anecdotally, was the issue of "vote flipping" or "vote jumping," where a voter would discover that pressing the checkbox beside one candidate's name would somehow select a rival. The problem was also reported during the 2004 presidential election as well, Bhatia said.

"That really needs to be independently investigated," said Bhatia. "That is an example of a problem that we had before that obviously didn't get corrected."

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