We're not trashing your vote; we're clearing a paper jam

A panel warns of problems with voting machines in November.

Published July 26, 2006 1:38PM (EDT)

Maybe it's just a sign of their own fears about November. But when Republicans like former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh start raising questions about voting machines -- their reliability, their accuracy, their susceptibility to hacking -- it's probably time to start getting just a little bit concerned.

In a new report, a committee of National Research Council experts warns that "some jurisdictions -- and possibly many -- may not be well prepared for the arrival of the November 2006 elections with respect to the deployment and use of electronic voting equipment and related technology." Among the concerns: To comply with deadlines imposed by the Help America Vote Act, many jurisdictions will roll out voting machines for the first time without adequate testing or training, with too few poll workers and with questions remaining about the security that the machines may or may not provide.

"These observations are not meant to suggest that there will be widespread failures of electronic voting systems, that election results will be clouded by excessive voter confusion about using new electronic voting systems, or that electronic election fraud will necessarily occur in November," the panel says. "Nevertheless, the circumstances of the November election raise the stakes for conducting elections that are regarded as fair and that can withstand close scrutiny even in the face of unproven technology and new election procedures. The challenges facing election officials and the nation in the upcoming election are formidable indeed, and only time will tell if election officials across the land will be able to succeed in the face of these challenges."

Thornburgh, one of the panel's co-chairmen, tells the Washington Post that November will be "a moment of truth" for voting machines. He said the panel's report should serve as "a caution sign -- not a stop sign, but not a clean bill of health for a technology that everyone recognizes there may be problems with."

As if on cue, the clerk for one Michigan county is warning that a high failure rate among voting machines there may cause delays in casting and counting votes in the state's Aug. 8 primary. In elections in May, Oakland County clerk Ruth Johnson tells the Oakland Press, voting machines had a 15 percent failure rate. Johnson says the machines break down so often that poll workers should come up with a plan for reassuring voters that they're simply clearing paper jams -- and not discarding votes -- when they have to open the machines and remove ballots from them.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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