CARSON CITY, Nev. — Alarmed by software glitches, security threats and computer crashes with ATM-like voting machines, officials from Washington, D.C., to California are considering an alternative from an unlikely place: Nevada.
Silver State voters cast electronic ballots last Tuesday on a $9.3 million voting system with more than 2,600 computers and printers in every county. The primary was free of serious problems that have embarrassed registrars in Florida, California, Maryland and other states with touchscreen machines.
“They were incredibly organized,” said Marc Carrel, assistant secretary of state in California, where several counties are preparing to install similar equipment next year. “I think California could pull off a similar election if we had adequate training and education programs for poll workers and voters.”
Credit the training in Nevada, and credit the printers — which give computer scientists and voter-rights advocates assurances that elections can be fully audited. As many as 50 million Americans elsewhere will use paperless touchscreens this November, and critics say hacking, malfunctioning and other problems in only a few counties could have huge implications in a tight presidential contest.
Last Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein co-sponsored legislation that would force hundreds of counties using touchscreens to install printers by requiring all voting machines to produce a paper trail by July 2006. An aide to the California Democrat said Nevada’s election marked a turning point in the contentious debate over touchscreens.
“The Nevada election demonstrates that you can have efficient electronic voting machines yet at the same time have a paper trail so voters can be assured they’ve voted accurately and their vote is being recorded accurately,” Feinstein spokesman Howard Gantman said.
Many registrars oppose paper ballots, insisting that printers — which cost about $800 each — are prone to jamming and too complicated for poll workers. They require counties to buy ink and paper, negating key cost advantages of paperless systems.
Kathy Rogers, the Georgia elections director who monitored voting in Las Vegas, said printers are not a panacea and could have unintended consequences: Unethical poll workers could use the printed ballots to determine how individuals voted.
“We seem to have traded a secret ballot for this piece of paper,” said Rogers, whose state has no plans to abandon paperless touchscreens. “In a small precinct, it would be easy to sit and observe what order people voted in.”
Few would have predicted that Nevada would become a flash point for voting technology. Seven of 17 counties used old-fashioned punch card machines in the previous election.
One poor, isolated county in eastern Nevada, White Pine, had to rent storage space for the newfangled gizmos; it kept its punch card machines in a cave. Douglas County is storing touchscreens in the fireproof server farm formerly rented by Harvey’s Casino.
“Nevada shows that maybe, just maybe, government can get things right after all,” Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller joked.
In 16 of 17 counties, every voting terminal includes a small black printer with a 300-foot roll of paper inside. Registrars will keep the paper for 22 months and randomly select a small percentage of machines to compare printed records with memory cartridge results.
Nevada’s primary wasn’t glitch-free. A power outage delayed results in Pershing County. Clark County had a software glitch that showed vote totals of zero for all precincts, though countywide numbers were posted on time. A damaged computer cartridge resulted in lost data and temporarily delayed results in Nye County.
But those pale compared with problems elsewhere. In 2002, New Mexico’s Bernalillo County drew 48,000 early voters — but only 36,000 were initially counted due to a glitch in the software used to tally votes from the paperless touchscreens. In North Carolina that year, a software bug deleted 436 electronic ballots from six machines in two counties. The machines erroneously thought their memories were full and stopped counting votes, even though voters kept casting ballots.
Because of such mishaps, Illinois will require a paper record of every ballot in 2006. Although most of Illinois’ 110 election jurisdictions use optical scan equipment, two of the largest — Chicago and the remainder of Cook County — are considering touchscreens.
Dianne Felts, director of voting systems and standards for Illinois’ elections board, said Nevada’s primary impressed her.
“It heartened everybody here because we were all so worried that the printers would jam,” Felts said. “It seemed to work very well there. Obviously, it can be done elsewhere.”
But DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, questioned whether more populous, diverse counties in other states can pull off as smooth an election.
Nevada has unique advantages.
Its abundance of retirees generates a big supply of poll workers — volunteers who complete a three-hour training course and spend the day setting up equipment and helping voters. By contrast, other states struggle to recruit and train workers, and some volunteers must speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and other languages.
When strapped workers in California’s San Diego County couldn’t cope with computer problems in the March primary, 573 of 1,038 polling places failed to open on time and disenfranchised an unknown number of would-be voters.
Turnout in Tuesday’s primary was low to begin with — roughly a quarter of registered voters — and a large number voted beforehand by absentee ballot or special polls for early voting. Thus, volunteers had time to help confused voters and quickly replace broken computers.