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Buzzword Alert: vote flipping

Have you heard? There’s an election here in the US tomorrow. After years of campaigning, votes have been pouring in over the last few days as early voters hit the polls and absentee ballots begin to be tallied. If all goes well, we’ll have a President-elect by the end of Election Day. Of course, if you remember the election of 2000, it isn’t always that quick or easy.

In fact, after the fiasco presented by butterfly ballots and hanging chads in Florida, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, creating minimum election administration standards for US states and budgeting nearly 3 billion dollars to help them upgrade voting machinery and clean up registration databases.

With that kind of cash and mandate out there, you might expect polling places to be full of gleaming new machines and carefully maintained lists of voters. In fact, the state of affairs is as complicated as ever, if not more so. According to 2008 National Voting Equipment Report from Election Data Services, “40% of registered voters will experience a new voting system since the last presidential election in 2004″ and more than half of the nation’s counties and over 68 of registered voters have seen changes to their voting system.”

Can you guess what type of voting equipment nearly 56% of Americans will use tomorrow?

It’s not the most common method of voting in use world-wide. That would be the hand-counted paper ballot and ballot boxes , still employed by 55 counties around the country, along with the absentee paper ballots submitted by U.S. mail in many counties.

It’s not mechanical pull lever voting machines, introduced last century to prevent fraud. Though 62 counties will be using them, pull lever machines have largely been phased out, due in no small part to transparency issues.

It’s not electronically-tabulated punch cards, either. There will be just 11 counties still knocking out those little chads tomorrow. Punch cards have been used for large-scaled data collection since the 19th century, when the government used it for the U.S. census, Herman Hollerith’s Electric Tabulating System, of course, is the ancestor to computers as we know them today.

It’s also not Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) counting machines from Premier Election Solutions (the company formerly known as Diebold). DREs are commonly referred to as touchscreens. 34% of counties nation-wide will be using touchscreen recording systems tomorrow. According to the Washington Post, however, Maryland is junking a $65 million investment in an electronic voting system in favor of paper. Virginia passed a law that bans DRE machines. After Princeton researchers released a 158-page report detailing the insecurities and inaccuracies of Sequoia’s DRE machine, many of these machines have come under increased scrutiny.

The answer is optical scanners, which combine a paper ballot with an electronic tabulating system and maintain a record of each vote cast. That record tends to be especially handy in the case of recounts. In fact, many counties have been switching touchscreen systems over optical scanners in recent years.

Vote flipping has become the election buzzword du jour. Vote flipping has been reported in Colorado, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

What’s going on? Touchscreen voting machines have been recorded choosing the wrong side of a ballot. Sometimes the result is purely for humorous effect, as when Homer Simpson experiences vote flipping:

In real life, of course, it isn’t, as evidenced by this video where a recalibrated touchscreen machine in WV appears to record a vote inaccurately.

Kim Zetter notes that the above video was heavily edited over at Wired’s 27bstroke6 Blog, though a followup post reports that evoting machines can be maliciously calibrated to favor specific candidates in the field. Computerworld reports that most vote flipping is a result of improper calibration as well. If your county uses DRE machines, make sure to consult the list of tips and reminders about how to use touchscreen voting machines posted by the Election Technology Council at

There are widespread concerns about the security, vulnerability and reliability of e-voting systems in general. In Palm Beach, for instance, every time the votes are counted, a different vote count comes out.

So what’s the most desirable choice? According to Fortify Software, the humble hand-counted ballot is the most secure, reliable way to make sure your vote is recorded. Optical scanners rank third, after absentee ballots.

No matter which candidate you support, if you’re registered, make sure to vote!

1 Comment »

  1. […] Duh. It’s the same technology we use whenever we take money out of an ATM machine. I think it makes more sense to be nervous about the fact that our voting technology is only up to 2002 standards. Alex Howard gives you the scoop on who’s using what. […]

    Pingback by Overheard: Touch screens, vote flipping and fear of touch screen parallax - Overheard in the tech blogosphere — November 4, 2008 @ 8:32 am

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