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Report says there's still time to make needed changes by Nov. 6
WASHINGTON - In what could be the most fiercely-contested election in U.S. history, Virginia officials may not be fully prepared to verify the accuracy of their vote counting, a new, national voting study suggests.
The report, "Counting Votes 2012: A State by State Look at Voting Technology Preparedness," faults the state's partial reliance on paperless voting systems; without a paper record of each vote, a proper post-election audit of the returns is impossible, it says. Although Virginia is no longer purchasing new paperless voting machines, many jurisdictions in the Commonwealth still use such systems.
In "swing" states like Virginia, where neither presidential candidate is expected to roll up a substantial majority, even a small error in vote counting that alters just a few votes could be decisive.
"High-profile elections in the past decade have been decided by razor thin margins," the report notes. "The 2000 presidential race was decided by 537 votes in Florida; the Washington State gubernatorial race in 2004 by 129 votes, and a Minnesota Senate race in 2008 by just 312. Every national election sees voting system failures stem from machines that won't start, memory cards that can't be read, mis-tallied votes, lost votes and more. Under the U.S. Constitution and every state constitution, as well as by statute throughout the country, every vote must be counted as cast."
The report emphasizes that some state election officials still have time before the election to make changes that would protect the integrity of the vote. The study was released Wednesday by three non-partisan organizations focused on voting - the Verified Voting Foundation, the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic, and Common Cause.
"We recognize Virginia is moving toward auditable systems in the coming period, and commend the state for piloting post-election audits in a recent study. We hope they will rigorously apply their contingency plans, which rated 'good'," said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting. "No election system is perfect, and ensuring fair, accurate elections is a national effort. Our elections are complex - we have so many jurisdictions and varying technologies. Everyone from election officials to citizens should be involved to make sure this process at the very heart of our democracy is healthy."
The report noted that voting systems routinely fail. In 2008 - the last presidential election year - more than 1,800 problems were reported nationally.
"If history is any indication, machines in November will fail, and votes will be lost," said Susannah Goodman of Common Cause. "Backup systems like paper ballots need to be put in place in every state to help to verify results."
The report places said Virginia "needs improvement" in examining its performance in each of five areas:
- Does the state require paper ballots or records of every vote cast? (When computer failures or human errors cause machine miscounts, election officials can use the original ballots to determine correct totals. Additionally, paper ballots can be used to audit machine counts.)
- Does the state have adequate contingency plans at each polling place in the event of machine failure?
- Does the state protect military and overseas voters and their ballots from alteration, manipulation and privacy violations by ensuring that marked ballots are not cast online?
- Has the state instituted a post-election audit to determine whether the electronically reported results are correct?
- Does the state use robust ballot reconciliation and tabulation practices to help ensure that no ballots are lost or added as votes are tallied and aggregated from the local to state level?
The highest rated states overall were Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin, while South Carolina, Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana and Mississippi -- were ranked near the bottom.
"No vote should be lost in 2012," said Penny Venetis, co-director of the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic. "Technology exists to verify votes, and procedures could be in place around the country to make sure that every vote is counted as cast, just like the constitution requires."
Issues: Voting and Elections
Common Cause is a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. We work to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process.