How the votes are counted

Our view: Election night glitches reignite anxiety over electronic voting, but failsafe mechanisms make missing votes unlikely

September 16, 2010

The aftermath of Tuesday's primary election has again focused anxiety on Maryland's electronic voting system, with candidates angry about delayed results and, in the case of the Baltimore state's attorney race, one claiming up to 10,000 votes are missing. The questions about the integrity of the process are fueled by what seems like a low-tech component of the system — the transfer of data from the voting machines to county boards of election — that led to several cases of election night human error. The complaint of missing votes from State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy deserves investigation, but the fact is that the system has sufficient safeguards that Maryland voters can be reasonably confident in the results that have been reported.

Here's how the vote tallying is supposed to work. When election judges open their precincts in the morning, they print a vote tally from every machine to show that they all started the day with no votes for any candidates. Those tallies are taped to the wall. (That's what those strips of paper you might have noticed on your way to vote are for.) At the end of the day, the judges shut down voting on all of the machines and print out two copies of the tally from each machine. One is taped next to the original printout from the morning, and the other is packed up for delivery to the board of elections. Then the judges are supposed to remove memory cards from the machines, pack them up, and take them to the election board for tallying.

In previous elections, some counties have experimented with sending results from the precincts by modem, but according to Maryland Deputy Elections Administrator Ross K. Goldstein, the encryption required made the process so time consuming that it proved easier to simply drive the cards to election headquarters. In Baltimore, the job is done by police officers. Once there, the cards are read by computer, and votes are tallied.

The problem Tuesday night was that in several cases in Baltimore city and county, election judges failed to bring all of their cards to the board of elections. Considering the fact that election judges are signing on for a 13-hour day in a job they don't do often and for which they have only a few hours of training, that sort of thing is bound to happen. So could that cause a problem like the 10,000 votes Ms. Jessamy says may be missing?

Probably not. Once all the cards that election judges turn in are uploaded, the computer system produces a list of which cards are missing. Elections officials are able to tell exactly which machines from which polling places are unaccounted for. They can then discover cases in which cards were left in machines, or placed in the wrong bag, or left in a judge's car, or got lost for some other reason. In Baltimore, this system revealed that some or all of the cards were missing from 12 precincts on election night — an error rate of about 4 percent.

If that meant those votes were ultimately lost, it would be a big deal, particularly given that the margin between Ms. Jessamy and her challenger, Gregg Bernstein, was a mere 1,400 votes. But the system has enough redundancy in place to make sure the votes are counted.

The first resort for dealing with missing cards is simply to find them and upload them in the system. But what if a card falls down a sewer grate or is stolen or just disappears? The data of votes cast is retained on each machine even after the memory card is removed, so the totals aren't lost. Failing that, vote totals can be taken from the printouts made after the polls closed.

In one final failsafe, elections officials can see whether the number of people who checked in to vote roughly matches the number of votes tallied. The electronic pollbooks used to check voters in are a different system from the voting machines, so they provide a means for independent verification. The number of voters who check in is never exactly the same as the number of votes cast — sometimes people, for whatever reason, leave after checking in but before casting a ballot — but Mr. Goldstein said no significant discrepancies were reported statewide from Tuesday's vote.

The electronic machines aren't perfect. Security experts have demonstrated that individual machines could theoretically be hacked (though in the real world of a polling place, it would be extremely difficult to do so), and many voters are uncomfortable about the fact that the machines don't print out any kind of receipt to assure them that their ballot was counted correctly. But Ms. Jessamy's camp is basing its complaint on a discrepancy between vote totals observed by staff members at polling places and those that were reported by the election board. Given the way the system works, such an error is unlikely.

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