Arkansas E-Vote Flipping: Force 9 Gale?

It seems like e-voting snafus are like weather: there’s
always a bit of a storm somewhere, and now and then you get a big one. Although
we can thank our lucky stars that we haven’t had a real hurricane, an
electronic equivalent of Florida in 2000, the recent
Arkansas vote-flipping
snafu might qualify as a force 9 gale.

And because this time it is clear the outcome of the race
was also flipped, this case of Arkansas State House District 45 in 2008 might
even be a higher water mark than the case of Florida’s 13th US Congressional District in
, one of the most infamous and well investigated snafus.

But this time, the software glitch was not so subtle, and it’s
clear that the electronic tally was wrong. The actual outcome of the race is
believed correct, though, because of another little software oddity. The touch
screen machines printed a paper trail which seems to be an accurate record of
the voter’s intent, while the electronic record was not.

Wired’s Kim Zetter has good coverage of the full story (Arkansas
Election Officials Baffled by Machines that Flipped Race
), so I’ll comment only what struck me the most in her story: how election officials responded before the election. Here again I’m
harping on the complexity of these voting systems. Election officials noticed the day
before the race that the District 45 race was missing from the touch-screen
ballots in one precinct. Their response was to print paper ballots for that one
race for that one precinct, and have voters use both that paper ballot and
the touch screen for the other contests.

Why? The voting systems were too complex for the election
officials to know how to fix. There was no guidance on how to respond to the
problem. So they did what seemed most expedient to them, and made the election
process that much more complex and hard to audit. And certainly if it hadn’t
been for the existence (and use) of the paper trail, the incorrect tally might
have been an incorrect election result. It’s tempting to fault the election
officials for insufficient pre-election testing, not noticing the glitch until
the day before the election, not making an ideal (in retrospect) choice of

Some of that may be fair. But what I observe, without judgment or blame, is that the unreliability and complexity of these election systems
outstripped the ability of election officials to use them – or to use them well to produce a
high-confidence result. You might say that the officials should have been more
diligent, or you might say that the election systems should have been more
reliable, trustworthy, and simpler to use. Either way, it’s a mismatch, and the
result is potential failure of the mission: to deliver high confidence election


One response to “Arkansas E-Vote Flipping: Force 9 Gale?

  1. Procedures for a short pre-election test of voting systems would likely pick up and solve these sorts of problems.

    Ted Selker has an interesting study that convincingly explains the problem in Florida as one of usability:

    At least the folks in Arkansas did some sort of test and detected something was wrong before it happened, even if they didn’t take the right corrective action.

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