In the late 1960’s Alexander Pope’s famous saying “To err is human, to forgive divine,” got an update for modern times: “To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.”
As the election gets close, there are already accusations in Ohio that voting machines in at least one precinct are recording Romney votes as Obama votes.
In the past similar allegations have been raised against Republicans. Either way, such problems, however rare, are never good.
In Massachusetts, nearly all ballots are counted by optical scan voting machines. (A handful of towns still count by hand). Optical scan voting machines can be — and usually are — very accurate, correctly determining the voter’s intent about 99.5% of the time. The last half a percent, about 1 in every 200 ballot markings, is not counted by the machine, usually because the voter did not exactly follow instructions, although a human observer can ascertain the voters’ intent fairly clearly. For most elections, within half a percent is good enough. When it’s really close, we can have recounts. The most common mistake on Accu-VOTE OS machines (the most common machines used in MA) is for voters create “Cheerio” votes, where they circle the candidate or the candidate’s oval on their ballot, instead of filling in the oval.
Unfortunately, however, voting machines can have larger problems, problems that can not be detected by Massachusetts’ relatively weak and outdated election regulations and laws. The worst danger is the slim possibility of badly programmed voting machine memory cards, which could cause machines to read Romney votes as Obama votes, or Brown votes as Warren votes, etc. Programming problems could be the result of either malfeasance or inadvertent error. While memory cards are checked in every precinct before Election Day with 50 to 75 sample ballots, there are at least two ways in which this test could fail to catch a problem. First, any problem that kicked in only when the number of ballots is greater than 75 would never be found. Second, any problem that manifested itself after the pre-test — for example, a card wearing out over time or a programming error that was date dependent — would never be found.
Most states that use optical scan ballots have followed the advice of voting machine experts from MIT, who recommend random, post-election hand-count audits in a small number of precincts. Unfortunately, due in large part to Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin’s implacable opposition to being audited in this way, legislation to bring election audits to Massachusetts has not yet become law. Last year, thanks to the leadership of State Representatives Mike Moran and Aaron Michlewitz and House Speaker Bob DeLeo, audit legislation moved through the House, but it was never taken up by the Senate.
In some states, individual voters can request recounts, but in Massachusetts, voters may only request recounts for ballot questions, races between candidates. Here, candidates have the opportunity to ensure the integrity of the count through selective recounts. Massachusetts law lets any candidate request a recount in a precinct by submitting a letter signed by a small number of residents of that precinct. Even write-in candidates can request recounts. Theoretically, a person could write themselves in for every race, and then collect signatures to request a hand recount every race in a precinct, triggering what would be a de facto audit of all the results for a precinct. A summary of recount procedures are posted online here.
For ordinary voters, the best advice is the same as the MBTA’s safety slogan: “If you see something, say something.” Any machine problem — indeed, any problem of the polls at any time — should be reported to the local authorities. If the poll workers present cannot solve it, report it to the city election department or the town clerk. If they can’t solve it, report to the state elections division. And, to make sure the problem is documented, report it also to the national nonpartisan voter protection hotline 1-866-OUR-VOTE.