Online Assistance Arrives to Combat Voting Hurdles, Glitches and Dirty Tricks

The bottom line: vote early, request a paper ballot, and report any problems immediately. HAVA (the Help America Vote Act) -- well-intentioned legislation meant to prevent the voter problems from 2000 of repeating -- gave too much power to technology, has been poorly applied and the results are mixed.

Reports of vote-flipping on voting machines have recently increased. There's no assurance that voting machines are running election-certified software. Some machines time out if votes are not entered within a certain time frame. And centralized voter registration databases are in some cases flawed and seriously insecure, including "computer mismatch" problems that might leave hundreds of thousands of voters purged from registration lists.

In efforts to avoid problems of recent elections, legislators, technologists and activists around the country have been working for years to ensure the integrity of votes in the 2008 election. Knowing technology is imperfect and human error always a factor, particularly in terms of missed software development deadlines, it's been a wait-and-see scenario to find out close to the election what the serious problems really are. So far the most major reports this year feature voters being rejected due to database flaws. The rest of the story finds -- in many cases -- government officials not willing to do anything about it. The lawsuits are piling up.

One of the most troubling issues about the voting databases involves security. Picture personal voter information of all the voters in the state being passed to multiple election offices unencrypted and without access controls or audit logs, i.e. a ripe opportunity for hackers. Aside from that, those who are being purged from these databases may not even know about it until it's too late, and provisional ballots are often not available as a backup solution.

The USACM report from a study of voter registration databases (VRDs) should have signaled to states the problems that could arise, particularly since systems in many of the states were still being delayed at that time, particularly point 8 of the report: "Election officials should develop special procedures and protections to handle large-scale merges with and purges of the VRD." However, many states have failed in this area and in some cases, their database merging conduct has been illegal.

Problems with voting machines and database mismatches -- including large numbers related to mismatches from comparisons with the Social Security Administration data -- have been reported in Georgia, Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Texas, Louisiana, Michigan, Alabama, North Carolina, Ohio, Montana, and Florida.

Common Cause, VerifiedVoting, and NYU's Brennan Center for Justice issued a report on states still vulnerable to voting machine problems, essentially showing that most states are not adequately prepared in terms of paper record verification, post-election auditing capabilities, or emergency paper ballot availability. That's aside from the voter suppression problems cropping up all over the country.

EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center) and the National Committee for Voting Integrity recently released a paper on "e-deception" practices warning of individuals and groups using online methods to skew the vote. These practices include e-mail and instant messaging deceptions, blog, social network and website-born misinformation, and VoIP scams.

Although technology has been part of the problems, it may also be part of the solutions. Election Protection, a nonpartisan coalition of over 100 voting rights groups, has created two websites: allows visitors to input their stories of voting problems, as does the partner Spanish site, Also the Voter Suppression Wiki tracks incidents and allows for on-the-fly documentation of voting problems.

And most recently, the Personal Democracy Forum (including techPresident), along with Rock the Vote and Election Protection, announced the Twitter Vote Report. Twitter users are encouraged to report any voting problems with the hashtag #votereport now through Election Day. Specific problems should be sent to @866ourvote along with #EP followed by the state in question, like #EPFL for Florida.

All of this raises questions of whether the United States, the world's champion of democracy, might require U.N. election monitoring in future years, or what else we still need to do to ensure that every vote counts. By next week, we should at least know roughly how many votes were displaced in 2008.