Stumper's Handy Voting-Problem Primer

By Sarah Kliff

Voting machines in Beaufort County, South Carolina weren't working when early voting started on Oct. 6. The problem? The state had given local election officials the wrong password to format the machines. Machines in Jacksonville, Fla. wouldn't record ballots. In Houston, ID scanning machines broke down, leaving about 300 voters waiting in line. "I came out here just expecting to shake people's hands and it's pandemonium," Representative Shelia Jackson Lee told the Houston Chronicle.

Early voting kicks off and, no surprise, a slew of mini-meltdowns follows. This is just the beginning of it: experts readily admit that somewhere, in some unforeseen county, there will be a voting breakdown--machines that don't record votes or tallies that don't add up. As election day nears, the more difficult question is: Will it be similar to 2000 in Florida—a recount fiasco that stretches on for weeks—or 2004 in Ohio, where problems with provisional ballots were resolved relatively quickly? And which unforeseen county will become the electoral scapegoat? Achieving that level of specificity is a bit harder.

"There will be some close election, even if it's not presidential, where they don't have proper procedures in place and things break down," says Larry Norden, project director at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. Norden's new, 190-page report asks, "Is America Ready to Vote?" The answer: sort of. He and his co-authors found nine states largely unprepared for the election, including key swing states like Colorado and Virginia. Ironically, the majority of the most prepared states—California, Oregon, Alaska, Wisconsin—aren't really in play (Missouri is one exception).  Sarah Kliff touched base with Norden about the potential problem spots and what voters can do about them. His take on what we're in for this time around:

Ohio and Florida still have meltdown potential, but not for the same reasons as before
. They're among the growing number of states that require an exact match between a voter's ID and his or her voter registration information.  These "no-match, no-vote" policies mean that any typo or nickname can get you disqualified. Norden uses himself as an example: he's Larry on his driver's license, Lawrence on his voter registration and, if he's in a "no match, no vote" state," he won't be voting. Both Ohio and Florida--two of the top swing states--have these policies. In Ohio, things look particularly grim: about 200,000 of the 660,000 voters who have registered there since Jan. 1 have records that don't match other government databases—and, on Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that Ohio's top election officials do not have to do more to help counties verify voter eligibility. Those 200,000 disputed registrations are a serious concern in a swing state where the Republican margin of victory was only 119,000 votes last time around.

Change: not just a campaign slogan. Two-thirds of voters will use a voting technology that's different from the one they used in the last presidential election, raising the risk of human error. The changes may vex election workers as well. If a county switches from electronic voting machines to paper ballots, for example--as many did this time around--officials need to create and follow an entirely new set of procedures. This is one of the problems that has plagued Palm Beach, where new technology played a major role in their latest voting meltdown.

High Turnout + Mechanical Failures = Recipe for Disaster. Record turnout and overwhelmed polling stations are basically a given after the massive crowds that turned out for the primaries. What could really cause a meltdown is if voting machines begin to malfunction and polling stations don't have a back-up plan. It's not an unlikely situation: by Norden's count, the majority of states do not have a policy to deal with voting machines gone haywire. This could be particularly problematic in some key swing states. Pennsylvania, for example, does not mandate that polling stations switch to emergency paper ballots unless all voting machines are down. So if half the machines go down, Norden says, lines could become four or five hours long. Without an emergency option, voters would likely get discouraged and go home. In Virginia, there's no statewide policy on how to deal with a mechanical malfunction, which will probably be a bigger problem for voters using electronic ballots. "Places that use paper usually have some indication that they're running low," says Norden. "Whereas if a machine breaks down, you didn't have any warning, and then you're stuck."

Voters can't fix everything—but they can fix some things. Here comes the public service announcement—what you, dear reader, can do to make this election a smooth one. First, make sure you're registered. It seems obvious, Norden says, but between 2004 and 2006, the states collectively purged 13 million voters. Purges are meant to remove the deceased and departed from the rolls, but they're prone to error and partisan manipulation (in Mississippi, for example, one election official purged 10,000 voters a week before the primary--from her home computer). While you're at it, double check your polling location, too. "In many states, if you vote at the wrong location, it won't count," Norden explains. A good place to find the necessary information, he says, is And don't forget to check out a sample ballot--especially if you're among those two-thirds of Americans who will be grappling with a new technology on Election Day.

Last but not least, do your Democratic duty. "Barring some major breakdown in the system, which occasionally happens, the vast, vast majority of votes will count," says Norden. "So you should get out and vote." In the meantime, pray that we don't end up with Florida: The Sequel.