by Stephanie Overby

Big Ideas 2003: Electronic Voting Machines

Jan 01, 20033 mins
Enterprise Applications

Where new electronic voting technology was introduced (more than 200 counties nationwide put new, electronic machines in place), new polling-place problems emerged.

Things went relatively smoothly in Palm Beach County, the former home of the butterfly ballot, during the mid-term elections in November. The county, the epicenter of the Al Gore-George W. Bush hanging-chad follies in 2000, installed new high-tech touch-screen machines in its polling places. The electronic casting of ballots seemingly went off without a hitch.

But elsewhere, where new voting technology was introduced (more than 200 counties nationwide put new, electronic machines in place), new polling-place problems emerged. In Florida’s Broward County, improperly loaded software and incorrect ballots caused problems with 40 to 50 machines. Some poorly programmed or miscalibrated machines in Georgia resulted in the incorrect display of some ballots, while others froze up. And software glitches in 30 Maryland voting precincts caused machines to identify all voters as Democrats. It wasn’t exactly the fall of 2000 all over again — most problems were quickly remedied. But then again, it wasn’t exactly the smooth, IT-facilitated voting future that under-the-gun election officials may have hoped for either.

After the November 2000 election, in which 4 million to 6 million votes were lost due to ballot, equipment, registration or polling-place problems, according the the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project, Americans cried out for new voting technology. But now it’s clear that IT by itself cannot save the day.

“The most enduring visual image of November 2000 was of those election workers holding up punch cards to fluorescent lights to look for indentations and chads,” says Doug Chapin, director of, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit election reform research group. “So folks targeted technology as the largest culprit and technology upgrades as the most important thing to do. But the larger lesson we take from Florida is that new machines alone don’t constitute election reform.”

Nonetheless, it looks like more new machines are on the way. On Oct. 4, a joint House-Senate committee agreed on a sweeping election reform bill that allocates $3.9 billion over the next three years to help states buy new equipment, train poll workers and create computerized statewide lists of registered voters.

Sounds good, but all politics are local, and that’s the level of government entity doing the purchasing and implementing of these new systems. They’re historically less interested in making voting easier and more interested in speeding up the counting of ballots and reducing fraud. That in turn is what has received the most attention from the few vendors selling this voting equipment, says Stephen Ansolabehere of the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project. So, unless there’s more emphasis on ease-of-use when new federal dollars come into play, there are likely to still be problems.

“We need to start designing machines where the emphasis is on usability,” he says.