States Warned to Prep for Election Glitches

By: - October 17, 2008 12:00 am

Eight years after voting irregularities marred the 2000 presidential election, most states still are not as prepared as they should be for Election Day glitches, from machine breakdowns to a shortage of emergency ballots, according to a new report by voter advocacy groups.

The states least-prepared to handle problems that could crop up at polling places are the presidential swing states of Colorado and Virginia, along with Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah, said the joint report released Thursday (Oct. 16) by the groups Common Cause , Verified Voting and the Brennan Center for Justice .

A separate report released the same day found that voters in most states can’t count on their state election Web sites for easily accessible information, including on where to vote and on what will be on the ballot.

Make Voting Work , a nonpartisan project of the Pew Center on the States , worked with the Internet usability firm Nielsen Norman Group to rate state election Web sites. The report gave the lowest grades to New Hampshire , Mississippi , Illinois , Connecticut and New Mexico . Iowa got the highest marks.

The reports reflect the heightened attention being paid to voting processes on Nov. 4 because of problems in 2000, when Florida had to count some ballots by hand days after the presidential election, and in 2004, when long lines and machine malfunctions stirred criticism in the battleground state of Ohio.

Prodded by the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act, states have made major changes to their voting systems since 2000, such as setting up electronic voter registration lists and updating voting machines. The shift to new electronic machines has proven controversial, though, and led some states to press for the addition of paper trails so votes can be verified later if necessary.

“We know that on Nov. 4, voting systems will fail somewhere. They’ve failed somewhere in every national election since 2000,” said Larry Norden of the Brennan Center. “Unfortunately, we can’t predict where those failures will be, and for this reason, every state has to be as prepared as possible for a system failure.”

The voter advocacy groups found that six states – Alaska, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin – have the best-prepared voting systems.

The report judged states in four areas: their Election Day contingency plans; whether they check that the number of ballots cast matches the number of voters; whether their voting machines have paper trails; and whether they audit results.

States that require or largely use voting machines with paper trails got positive reviews. Nineteen states were criticized for not requiring paper trails, which can ensure that votes were properly recorded and can be used in a recount if a machine malfunctions.

In precincts using electronic machines without paper trails, the report suggests that an adequate supply of emergency paper ballots be on hand in case of machine failures or long lines.

But eight states – Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia – don’t require such precincts to store emergency paper ballots onsite, the report found. It noted that counties in Louisiana and Nevada keep emergency ballots at a central location, such as county headquarters or in the cars of roving technicians, instead of at the polling place.

The verdict of the other report, ” Being Online Is Not Enough ,” was that most state election Web sites could be improved.

“If elections offices aren’t online or if they don’t have a well-designed site, they are invisible to a growing number of Americans who turn to the Web for information. A well-functioning Web site will arm voters with the information they need to make their vote count,” said Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Make Voting Work. Like Make Voting Work, also is a project of the Pew Center on the States.

The states that ranked highest in election Web site usability were Iowa , Texas , Utah , Pennsylvania and New Jersey . Iowa’s site was ranked highest because it includes links to critical voter issues such as absentee voting, registration status and polling places.

New Hampshire received low marks because its home page is difficult to navigate, while Mississippi’s home page, instead of highlighting useful links, includes explanations of what its election officials do.

Kentucky’s Web site scored well for overall usability but was criticized by the report because the text on its home page “is written at a reading level well above the 12 th grade.” The site’s welcome message, for example, announces that the state board of elections “promulgates administrative regulations” and “supervises … the purgation of voters.”

The analysis found, among other things, that:

  • Only 38 state sites appear as the first search term when searching for “voting in [STATE NAME]” on popular search engines such as Google. South Dakota’s site does not even appear on the first page of results.
  • Thirty-four states have a poll locator tool, while 26 states allow voters to check their registration online.
  • If more voters use state sites to find information, it could cut the volume of calls to voter telephone help lines and save up to per call.

The report added that six states and Los Angeles County are sharing data using the Voting Information Project , an initiative by state and local election officials, Make Voting Work and Google. It helps state officials share voting information, such as polling places and ballot content, with other sources to which voters might turn for information, such as local newspapers, political parties and Internet search engines.

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