Scattered e-voting problems anger computer scientists

“We have to hope for the best” said one voter. All too true.

Super Tuesday voters in Maryland, Georgia and California encountered scattered technical problems Tuesday as electronic voting machines got their biggest U.S. test so far.

Elections officials blamed improperly trained poll workers unfamiliar with new machines, especially in Maryland and California, where dozens of counties switched from antiquated punch-card and lever systems to touchscreen terminals.

“There have been a few human errors, which you have in any election, but there have been no voting equipment problems at all,” said Linda Lamone, Maryland election laws administrator.

That argument didn’t placate voter advocates and computer scientists who have complained that electronic voting exposes elections to hackers and software bugs. They’re upset that touchscreens don’t produce paper records, making an accurate recount nearly impossible.

“The inherent fallibility of humans is precisely why we need a voter-verified paper trail,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “Things will always go wrong in elections.”

In California, where Tuesday marked the first statewide elections without any punch-card machines, touchscreens by Diebold Inc. in San Diego County failed to boot properly, causing delays up to two hours and forcing some voters to go to other polling places to cast paper ballots.

County spokesman Mike Workman said poll workers became confused when computers booted to a Microsoft Windows screen, not the e-voting operating system. The problem, possibly triggered by a power fluctuation that reset computers to Windows, affected between 10 percent and 15 percent of the county’s 1,611 precincts, Workman said.

Diebold spokesman David Bear, in San Diego to help poll workers on Tuesday, said he anticipated that such problems would recede as poll workers learned touchscreen protocol.

Perplexed poll workers in California’s Orange County swamped the voting registrar’s technical support phone lines Tuesday morning, as the “eSlate” system by Hart InterCivic debuted in 1,122 precincts.

“Our problems are more with the poll workers scrolling through to find the right ballot within the right precinct,” said Brett Rowley, a spokesman for the county’s Registrar of Voters Office.

Glitches in other states involved encoders, devices inserted into voting machines that enable the screens to display different party affiliations, languages or ballot measures.

Some polling places in Maryland received wrong encoders, and one Georgia county apparently forgot to program them. Voters in both states resorted to paper ballots kept as backups.

In Maryland’s Howard County, a computer server could not receive electronic data over a conventional modem, forcing a 90-minute delay while poll workers hand-delivered data cards to the registrar.

A record number of voters were expected to cast e-ballots for the first time Tuesday. As many as 6 million registered voters in California were using touchscreen machines, and all voting in Maryland and Georgia was to be electronic.

Many voters worry that the machines could miscount votes — and voters wouldn’t know because they have no paper records.

“I really don’t trust a computer,” said Alice Saar, 65, who was voting in Brooklyn Park, Md. “But what choice do we have? You have to hope for the best.”