In many places, the difficulties led to shortages of substitute paper ballots and long lines that caused many voters to leave without casting ballots. Still, an association of top state election officials concluded that for the most part, voting went as smoothly as expected.
Over the last three weeks, attention has been focused on a few close races affected by voting problems, including those in Florida and Ohio where counting dragged on for days. But because most of this year’s races were not close, election experts say voting problems may actually have been wider than initially estimated, with many malfunctions simply overlooked.
That oversight may not be possible in the presidential election of 2008, when turnout will be higher and every vote will matter in what experts say will probably be a close race.
Voting experts say it is impossible to say how many votes were not counted that should have been. But in Florida alone, the discrepancies reported across Sarasota County and three others amount to more than 60,000 votes. In Colorado, as many as 20,000 people gave up trying to vote, election officials say, as new online systems for verifying voter registrations crashed repeatedly. And in Arkansas, election officials tallied votes three times in one county, and each time the number of ballots cast changed by more than 30,000.
“If the success of an election is to be measured according to whether each voter’s voice is heard, then we would have to conclude that this past election was not entirely a success,” said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan election group that plans to release a report Wednesday with a state-by-state assessment of voting. “In places where the margin of victory was bigger than the margin of error, we looked away from the problems, but in 2008 we might not have that luxury.”
Accusations of missing ballots and vote stuffing were not uncommon with mechanical voting machines. But election experts say that with electronic voting machines, the potential consequences of misdeeds or errors are of a greater magnitude. A single software error can affect thousands of votes, especially with machines that keep no paper record.
And though recent test runs of new computerized voter registration rolls in Indiana and Missouri revealed large numbers of errors, on Election Day reports of problems with the databases were few and isolated. The National Association of Secretaries of States, which represents top election officials from across the country, has said Nov. 7 was generally “a good day.”
But some of the biggest states have not been able to overcome problems with new technology or rules and the lightly trained poll workers who must oversee them. In Ohio, thousands of voters were turned away or forced to file provisional ballots by poll workers puzzled by voter-identification rules. In Pennsylvania, the machines crashed or refused to start, producing many reports of vote-flipping, which means that voters press the button for one candidate but a different candidate’s name appears on the screen.
Perhaps most notoriously, officials in Sarasota County say nearly 18,000 votes may never have been recorded by electronic machines in a Congressional race, even though many voters said they tried to vote.
The recent problems will probably help propel legislation that has stalled for months in Congress mandating that electronic voting machines have a paper trail to better enable recounts. Less clear, experts say, is whether anything will be done to address concerns about the lack of technicians to troubleshoot machines, polling places with too few machines and poorly trained workers, and a system run by partisan election officials who may decide conflicts based on politics rather than policy.
“These types of low-tech problems threaten to disenfranchise just as many people, if not more, but they tend to get less attention,” said Tova Wang, an elections expert with the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan research group in New York. “We still have a long way to go toward fixing the biggest problems with our election system.”
Election workers and experts say the advances in technology have simply overwhelmed many of the people trying to run things on the ground. At a hearing in Denver last week, one focus was on how hard it has become for the poll workers, often retirees getting paid $100 for a 14-hour day, and what it would take to attract younger people who are perhaps more savvy about computers.
“It used to be that you would come in, set up the machines, make a cup of coffee and say hello to your neighbors,” said Sigrid Freese, who has worked at Denver polling places for more than 20 years. Now, she said, the job is complicated and stressful, and “I know a lot of people who said, ‘Never again.’ ”
After widespread confusion and controversy caused by the hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 to help states phase out old-fashioned lever and punch-card machines and to introduce electronic voting equipment. But with malfunctions reported from a handful of states in the primaries earlier this year, many voting experts and state officials feared that the new technology might have only swapped old problems for newer, more complicated ones.
On Election Day, two voting-rights groups, Common Cause and the Election Protection Coalition, fielded nearly 40,000 telephone calls on two national hot lines from voters’ reporting of problems or seeking information, and both groups are due to release their findings within the next two weeks. An initial review of their data, along with interviews with officials and experts, reveals that Florida, Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania were among the states with the most calls reporting trouble, including long lines, names missing from voter registration rolls, poll worker confusion and computer failures.
In a few places, the difficulties started as soon as voters walked up to the sign-in tables.
In Ohio, even a congressman, Steve Chabot, a Republican , was turned away from his polling place because the address listed on his driver’s license was different than his home address. Mr. Chabot was able to vote only after he returned with a utility bill. The state’s top election official had to fax a midday notice to all precincts that such minor discrepancies were acceptable.
In Denver, the culprit was a new electronic poll book, which workers had to consult through laptop computers. The system was supposed to verify each voter’s name in less than a minute. But it started slowing at 7 a.m. and eventually had to be turned off and rebooted, after taking up to 20 minutes to find each name.
As a result, voters waited in line for two to three hours. Liz Prescott, a computer industry executive, said she twice tried to vote but was deterred by the lines. “I’m just flabbergasted that this system at all levels failed,” Ms. Prescott said.
John Gaydeski, Denver’s election director, acknowledged that the system had not been tested properly before the election.
In Arkansas, Florida and Pennsylvania, the questions were about the voting machines themselves. In addition to the Sarasota issue, which may have been caused by a software problem, there were similar problems in the Florida counties of Charlotte, Lee and Sumter. In those counties, said Barbara Burt, vice president and director for election reform at Common Cause, more than 40,000 voters who used touch-screen machines seemed not to have chosen a candidate in the attorney general’s race. But since one candidate won by 250,000 votes, the anomaly has been generally overlooked.
On election night in Arkansas, officials discovered that erroneous results had been tallied in Benton County. After retabulating the votes, they announced that the total number of ballots cast had jumped to 79,331 from 47,134, which meant a turnout of more than 100 percent in some precincts. After a third tallying, the total dropped to 48,681.
In Pennsylvania, computer problems forced polling places in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties to stay open late. In Westmoreland County, a programming error in at least 800 machines caused long lines.
Mary Beth Kuznik, a poll worker in that county, said she had to reset every machine after each voter, or more than 500 times, because the machines kept trying to shut down.
Howard Shaub, the elections board chairman in Lancaster County, counseled patience. “We used those old lever machines for 20, 30 years,” Mr. Shaub said. “We just have to have better quality control and the new machines will work fine.”
But Ms. Kuznik said one man refused to vote on the electronic machines and demanded a provisional ballot. “At least my vote will be on a piece of paper,” Ms. Kuznik recalled his saying.
Bob Driehaus contributed reporting from Cincinnati.