Is America Ready to Vote?

October 16, 2008

State Preparations for Voting System Problems in 2008

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Overall Most and Least Prepared

Repair of Machines and Emergency Paper Ballots  

Ballot Accounting & Reconciliation

Paper Records

Post-Election Audits


On November 4, 2008 voting systems will fail somewhere in the United States in one or more jurisdictions in the country. Unfortunately, we don't know where. For this reason, it is imperative that every state prepare for system failures. We urge each state to take steps necessary to insure that inevitable voting machine problems do not undermine either the individual right to vote, or our ability to accurately count each vote cast.

Is America Ready to Vote? State Preparations for Voting Machine Problems in 2008 asks what steps each state has put into place to insure against disenfranchisement in the event of election system failures. These might include broken machines, damaged voting system cartridges, software glitches, misprogrammed tally servers, and a range of other likely troubles.

This report does not look at the steps that all states should take to minimize risk of mechanical failures. (most notably, we do not consider pre-election testing which helps insure that machines work properly. This subject has been explored by experts in the recent past (see links: here and here).

Rather, the report assumes that, even with the best voting protocols, occasional machine failures are inevitable. 

The report looks at the laws, regulations and procedures of all 50 states and the District of Columbia in four key areas related to their preparedness for voting system failure. We have focused on four distinct areas:

  • Polling Place Contingency Plans: Repair of Machines and Emergency Paper Ballots Twenty-four states have some counties that use electronic voting machines or lever machines as their primary voting system on Election Day. If machines in these counties fail, as they have in the past, voters may have to wait in long lines as election workers scramble to repair mechanical troubles. The best prophalytic against injury thus caused is to equip each polling place with emergency paper ballots that can be distributed to voters while machines are out of commission.
  • Requirements for Sound Ballot Accounting and Vote Reconciliation. Ballot accounting and reconciliation practices help ensure that the number of ballots cast matches the number of voters who have voted, and that no votes are lost.  By checking the number of people who signed in at the poll books against totals reported by the voting machines, by double checking that all absentee votes were counted and every machine’s total included in the statewide tally, and by accounting for all votes used and unused, jurisdictions can catch the kinds of glitches and failures that have resulted in incorrect totals in several past elections.
  • mapUse of a Voting System with a Voter Verifiable Paper Record.  Nearly every state in the country counts its votes on some form of electronic voting system. But 19 states use machines that have no voter-verifiable paper record. These help guard against the possibility that corrupt software or programming errors will result in an incorrect machine total.
  • Conducts Post-Election Audit of Voter Verifiable Paper Record.  Mandatory comparison of some percentage of the paper ballots to electronic totals is one of the best ways to ensure that the electronic totals reported by voting machines are accurate.

Six states received the best rankings (between "generally good" and "excellent") in all relevant categories:  Alaska, California, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, and Oregon.  Ten states received the worst rankings ("needs improvement" or "inadequate") in three of four categories: Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia


Polling Place Contingency Plans: Repair of Machines and Emergency Paper Ballots

States that use direct recording electronic (DRE) machines or lever machines as a primary voting system on Election Day should require immediate repair or addition of machines, and provide emergency paper ballots to voters if long lines result from voting machine failure or insufficient machine allocation. States should also take steps to ensure that they emergency paper ballots are treated as regular ballots (rather than absentee or provisional ballots), and that there are sufficient numbers of emergency paper ballots to distribute in the event of long lines.

Of the twenty-four states that use voting machines (as opposed to paper ballots and optical scanners) as a primary voting system in at least some precincts, only California, Indiana and Ohio have state-mandated requirements which satisfy most of the best practices listed above. Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia have no state-mandated requirement for emergency paper ballots to be available in precincts that use voting machines.


Summary of Best Practices for Ballot Accounting and Reconciliation

There are four basic ways to ensure that all ballots are accounted for after the polls have closed: accounting for all ballots, votes and voters at the polling place (including counting and recording the total number of votes cast); reconciling vote and ballot totals at the polling place (including checking the number of votes recorded against the number of voters who have signed the polling books); reconciling redundancies as votes from each precinct are totaled at the county level (including ensuring that all absentee ballots and every voting machine total is accounted for in the county totals); and making all results public, so that candidates and members of the public can double-check all totals. A detailed checklist appears on page 44-45 of the report.

As indicated on the map above, all states do some form of ballot accounting and reconciliation that nine states (Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Virginia) have requirements that fall far short of our recommended best practices, and are therefore rated "needs improvement." Eight states require enough in the way of ballot accounting and reconciliation to substantially comply with our best practices, and we rate their requirements "good."


Best Practices on Voter-Verifiable Paper Records.

There is widespread agreement among security experts that some form of independent voter-verified record is critical for voting system security; voter verified records also provide a a check against potential electronic miscounts. Currently, only optical scan ballots, which are filled out by the voter and read by a scanner, and "paper trails" which are printed and used with touch-screen machines, offer such a record. Touch screen machines with paper trails give voters the opportunity to review a paper record of their vote before casting it.

States that have software independent voter-verifiable paper records for all voters received a "good" ranking. Those that did not received an "inadequate" ranking.


Summary of Best Practices for Post-Election Audits of Voter-Verifiable Paper Records

In the last several years, public debate on electronic voting has laregely focused on the question of whether voting machines should include a voter-verifiable paper record. As detailed above, in much of the country, that debate is over. Thirty-two states now have either voter-verifiable paper ballots, or voter-verifiable paper record printers to voting machines statewide. Four states (Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Tennessee) have laws that take effect in 2009 or 2010 that require voter-verified paper ballots or records. Arkansas, Colorado and Mississippi have paper in most counties. The District of Columbia and Florida have paper ballot systems in all counties, along with paperless DREs, and Florida will eliminate paperless systems altogether by 2012.

Unfortunately, the widespread adoption of voter-verifiable paper records does not mean jurisdictions will catch software problems that can cause lost or mis-tallied votes. To the contrary, as the Brennan Center noted in its June 2006 comprehensive study of electronic voting system security The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World,[1] voter-verifiable paper records by themselves are "of questionable security value." Paper records will not prevent programming errors, software bugs or the introduction of malicious software into voting systems. If paper is to maximize the security and reliability of voting systems, it must be used to check, or "audit," the voting system's electronic records.


[1] Lawrence Norden et al., The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World 121 (Brennan Center for Justice ed., 2006), available at