7 scariest problems with today's voting machines

On Election Day, millions of people in the U.S. will go to the polls to cast ballots. That's a lot of votes to count, and to make sure we get results in a reasonable amount of time, almost all of them will be counted by machines. It's a good idea — as long as the technology is reliable. But when you put voters, inexperienced poll workers, and a variety of machines together, weird things could happen.

In our research to create DVICE's Guide to Voting Machines in the USA, we discovered that some voting machines are vulnerable to hacking, some machines are more prone to mistakes than others, and new machines can flummox voters and poll workers alike. While the chance of a complete meltdown is pretty small, we found a handful of facts about the machines that point to the possibility (but not necessarily the probability) of mistakes, hacks and lost votes.

Before we point you toward seven scary stories, we'd like you to know that all the experts we talked to said they had no evidence that anyone has ever stolen an election. Given the compartmentalized nature of the country's thousands of voting precincts, that would not be an easy caper to pull off. Keeping that in mind, we investigated numerous stories of machine manipulation, mistakes, and possible hacks, and picked out seven notable examples that have us slightly concerned:

1. Rejected Ballots
After a close primary election on Aug. 26 in Palm Beach County, Florida, there was a mandatory recount because the election's margin of victory was less than 0.05%. During the recount, officials tested the machines, and discovered that optical-scan machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems produced different results each time the same ballots were scanned. In one of the tests of 160 ballots, the machine only accepted three of them, rejecting all the others. On the next test, 90 of those same ballots were accepted.

2. Hack the AccuVote

Researchers from Princeton University show how you can hack into an Accuvote-TS machine in less than a minute. One expert told us this would be exceedingly difficult to do in an actual voting precinct, because an election official would see you, and if not, there's a tamper-evident seal that would reveal any foul play.

3. Malicious Firmware

Here's a team we talked with from University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), testing the security of the Sequoia AVC Edge direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machine. They show how malicious firmware can be inserted into the laptop used to prepare electronic voting machines for use. Looks pretty easy.

4. Not So Tamper-Proof

We were feeling pretty confident about that security-seal idea until about 5:15 into this video, where this guy from UCSB breaks into a Sequoia machine in a matter of seconds without any evidence that he'd done a thing. No evidence of tampering here, officer.

5. Ten Percent Fail
Quoted in an article that has "scary" written all over it, Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, says he thinks 10% of touchscreen electronic voting machines "fail" during each election. Our fears were somewhat eased by his next sentence: "In general, those failures result in the loss of zero or one vote … but they’re very disturbing to the public.” Doing a bit of basic math, 55,716,854 people will vote on electronic machines in 58,019 precincts in the upcoming election. So if 10% of those precincts lose just one vote each, that's still 5801 votes, far more than decided the 2000 presidential election. But then that's spread across the whole country, so maybe that's not too bad.

6. Critical Security Failures
A review (pdf) last year determined Ohio's voting methods all had critical security failures, blasting electronic machines from Premier Elections Solutions Inc. (a subsidiary of Diebold), ES&S, and Hart InterCivic. All three of these machines will be used on Election Day, but Ohio's Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who's in charge of the state's election, says Ohio voters will be allowed to use paper ballots if they don't trust these electronic machines.

7. Paper Problems, Too
Even paper ballots aren't immune to error. In upstate New York, 300 voters received absentee ballots that had a little printing error on them. Misplace one letter, and Senator Barack Obama turns into Barack Osama. Oops. The two Rensselaer County election commissioners, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, said they regretted the error, shredded the rest of the errant ballots, and told voters they could vote for Osama and their ballots would still be counted as Obama votes, or request a new ballot.