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Texas Voters Say Straight-Party Voting Flipped Votes; Activists Urge Voters to Avoid Straight-Party Voting

Kim Zetter    Wired    29 October 2008

A number of voters in several Texas counties have been complaining that voting machines they used to cast early votes flipped their votes from Democratic choices to Republican ones.

Voters have reported that when they tried to vote a straight-party Democratic ticket, the machine flipped their choices to Republican candidates instead. In some cases, voters reported a problem only with the presidential race; in other cases voters reported the entire ballot being marked Republican by the machine.

The counties where the problems were reported use different kinds of voting machines from three of the top voting machine companies Election Systems & Software, Diebold Election Systems (now Premier Election Solutions) and Hart InterCivic.

A Hart InterCivic spokesman said that at least one of the scenarios that a voter described isn't possible on the company's machines. A spokesman for ES&S said very few voters had complained and as far as he knew poll workers were never able to replicate the situation they described. The same ES&S machines are at the center of stories in West Virginia and Tennessee where voters also reported the machines flipping their votes, though the scenario in those states was slightly different since voters there weren't trying to vote a straight-party ticket when the problem occurred.

Voting a straight-party ballot or ticket is an option offered in 15 states whereby a voter can choose to vote straight-party Democrat or Republican and the ballot will automatically mark votes for candidates from that party on the ballot.

Because of the reports of problems, many election integrity groups are urging voters to forego the option.

"We're asking people to avoid the straight-party option entirely and if you want to vote for candidates who are all from the same party, mark them each individually in each race," said Ellen Thiessen, founder of VotersUnite.

Complaints so far have come in from at least seven Texas counties Collin, Dallas, El Paso, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson, and Palo Pinto.

Collin County uses Diebold paperless Accu-Vote touch-screen machines; Dallas uses ES&S paperless iVotronic machines; El Paso uses Diebold paperless Accu-Vote touch-screen machines; Galveston uses Hart InterCivic paperless eSlate machines, which use a dial-and-click system that doesn't require voters to touch the screen; Harris uses Hart InterCivic paperless eSlate machines; Jefferson and Palo Pinto Counties use ES&S paperless iVotronic touch-screen machines.

Some of the complaints have come in to a national voter hotline (866-MY-VOTE1). Not all of the voters left their name or number, making it difficult to follow up with them to obtain details about the problem. Only two of the complaints have been previously reported; one in Palo Pinto County and one in El Paso County.

Here are recordings from some of the complaints that have been made to the hotline (Threat Level is publishing recordings only from voters who did not disclose their name or other personal information in their recording):

# Collin County (.wav)
# Galveston County (.wav)
# Jefferson County (.wav)
# Harris County (.wav)
Lona Jones of Mineral Wells, Texas, in Palo Pinto County told a McClatchey-Tribune reporter that when she pressed the button to vote straight-party Democrat on her ES&S iVotronic machine in the county courthouse, the machine returned a screen showing all Republican candidates chosen. She told Threat Level she thought she'd hit the wrong button, so she returned to the first screen and chose Democrat again, this time making sure she pressed the correct button.

The machine then displayed a page asking her if she wanted to replace her Republican votes with Democratic ones. She affirmed that she did, but when the ballot came up for the second time, it was again marked as a straight-party Republican ticket with all Republican candidates ed.

Jones called a poll worker who told her "Those machines mess up all the time." She opted not to try the machine a third time but used a second machine at the courthouse, which her husband had just used. She said this machine gave her no problems.

Jones later spoke with Teresa Crosier, an election judge and office manager at the headquarters for the Democratic Party in Palo Pinto County, who told her she'd had the same problem when she tried to vote a straight-party Democratic ballot. Crosier told the McClatchey-Tribune it took her three tries for the machine to get it right. Threat Level was unable to track down Crosier to independently verify her account.

County Clerk Bobbie Smith told Jones that the county had "had all kinds of trouble the last time we used these machines" but had run the machine through tests before the election and no problems occurred. Smith was out of the office when Threat Level contacted her for comment. Threat Level left a message, but an assistant said the election director couldn't call a long-distance number on county phones and wouldn't provide a number where Threat Level could call her.

Jones and Crosier aren't the only voters who have complained about Texas machines.

Martha Herndon voted last Friday at a machine set up at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall in Houston in Harris County, Texas.

Herndon said she ed the straight-party Democratic choice on her Hart InterCivic screen but when the ballot came up, all of the Republican candidates were ed, including John McCain in the presidential race. Two races on the ballot were blank. One was for a Senate race (she didn't remember if it was a U.S. senate or a state senate race); she couldn't remember the other race.

The Harris County ballot does include a U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent John Cornyn, Democrat Rick Noriega and Libertarian Yvonne Schick. It also includes four state senate races, each of which has a Republican candidate running in it. One of the state senate races doesn't have a Democratic candidate.

Herndon said she called the poll worker, who re-set the machine for her. But when she ed straight-party Democrat again, the ballot still came up with all Republican candidates ed.

When Herndon pointed out to the poll worker that all of the ions were Republicans, Herndon said the poll worker told her it didn't matter, as long as she had ed straight-party Democrat her ballot would be cast for Democrats. Herndon asked the poll worker to re-set the machine again. When she ed straight-party Democrat a third time, the ballot came up correctly with Democratic candidates ed and highlighted.

Herndon said she used a machine that was set aside for handicapped voters in wheelchairs. Although she's not handicapped, a poll worker directed her to that machine.

Harris County spokesman Hector DeLeon was skeptical of Herndon's account. He said that in every example where voters complain about machines, they complain only to the media or their political representative and not to poll workers at the time the problem occurs. He also said the claims can never be substantiated when election workers check them out. He acknowledged his office did not check out Herndon's claim. Although Herndon had reported the issue to her poll worker at the time, the poll worker apparently didn't pass the issue on to election officials.

DeLeon pointed out that his county has received only about 20 complaints from voters so far involving various issues and that more than 400,000 voters have cast early ballots.

Loquita Henderson of Dallas had a slightly different experience from Herndon's. She told Threat Level she took her 19-year-old handicapped daughter to vote at the Duncanville Library in Duncanville in Dallas County, Texas, on Monday the 27th. Henderson accompanied her daughter to an ES&S iVotronic machine that was set up for voters in wheelchairs.

Henderson said she pressed the screen to vote straight-party Democrat for her daughter but when the ballot came up for review, every Democrat on it was checked except Barack Obama. Instead, Bob Barr, the Libertarian presidential candidate on the Texas ballot, was chosen.

Henderson noticed that another race on the ballot was blank. It was a race for a judge's seat. There were no Democratic candidates running in that race; only a Republican and a Libertarian, she said.

"I was looking to see if anything else was checked wrong and I thought it was so weird that the only one that it did not the Democrat was the president (race)," Henderson said. "They could explain that (as) a compter glitch if the whole ballot was wrong. But how in the world do you get everything right but one?"

The Dallas County ballot does include one judicial race (.pdf) in which there is no Democratic candidate. It's a race for a judicial seat in the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Henderson said she changed the vote from Barr to Obama but worried that other voters might not notice the problem if it happened to them and cast their ballot without correcting it. She told a poll worker about the problem as she was leaving but said the poll worker didn't seem concerned about it.

"I'm hoping that the average person reviews their votes closely," she said.

Threat Level tried several times to reach Dallas County officials for comment but no one in the office knew who should discuss this.

ES&S spokesman Ken Fields told Threat Level, "The iVotronic provides a review screen that requires voters to review the ions and ensure that the ions being highlighted by the machine are the ions that they've intended. We've not had the opportunity to review the assertions that are being made in this particular situation, but the technology has been proven millions and millions of times to record votes accurately."

Stanford University computer scientist David Dill, who is the founder of VerifiedVoting.org, said if the cases where voters are trying to vote straight-party Democrat and get a straight-party Republican ticket are true, it could be the result of a calibration error that causes the machine to misread the voter's touch on the screen.

"If someone tries to cast a straight-party Democratic ticket I imagine the Republican button is just above it, and a little bit of offset could result in the whole thing just going Republican. But if just the first vote is Republican, it's hard to know how that would happen. There are a million explanations for everything with a computer."

Another voter in Clute, Texas in Brazoria County voted on October 20th, the first day of early voting in that county, and experienced yet a different problem. Rose M. Ward told Threat Level she ed the straight-party Democrat option on her Hart InterCivic machine, then ed Obama's name separately. She said when she did this, the box next to McCain's name highlighted.

Generally when a voter s a name that is already highlighted and clicks on it, the machine should simply de- that candidate, not another candidate.

Hart InterCivic spokesman Peter Lichtenheld disputed Ward's claim and said its machines aren't capable of doing what she described unless she specifically ed McCain.

"The voters are either confused or spreading vicious rumors," he said.

Lichtenheld said that because the Hart InterCivic machines are not touch-screen machines, a voter's ion can't "drift" they way it might on a touch-screen machine. Hart InterCivic's eSlate machine uses a dial and "Enter" button positioned below the screen to candidates.

To de- one candidate and another in the same race, a voter turns the dial to move a navigation bar on the screen to the name of the candidate he wants to de- and pushes "Enter". The machine presents a blue screen telling the voter he is changing his vote and asks if he wants to continue. To a new candidate, the voter moves the navigation bar to the new candidate and presses "Enter." A voter can also simply change a ion without taking the extra step to de- the first candidate by simply placing the navigation bar on the second candidate's name and pushing "Enter." In this instance, a blue screen will still tell the voter he has made a change.

"There's no way that something is being ed or de-ed without the voter taking an action," Lichtenheld told Threat Level. "If you de- a candidate a blue screen comes up and warns you that you have changed your ion. And when you see that candidate's name, it doesn't have the red box ed anymore and it says next to that contest no ion. Now would it happen? Yeah anything can happen," he added. "But voters have plenty of opportunity to check if they've made that change."

Ward said she didn't remember seeing a blue screen but acknowledged she might have missed it.

Lichtenheld directed Threat Level to this video demonstrating how voters can change their ion on an eSlate machine.

As for why Ward tried to Obama's name after already ing to vote a straight-party ticket, voters in Texas have been receiving a deceptive e-mail targeted at Democratic voters that falsely tells them that if they vote a straight-party Democratic ticket, it doesn't include the presidential race and they have to then choose their presidential candidate separately. But ing a straight-party ticket and then ing Obama after the straight-party ballot comes up would result in the machine de-ing the voter's vote for Obama. Voters who cast their ballot at that point would be casting a ballot with no vote cast in the presidential race.

A second voter in Brazoria County reported to a local publication that she also tried to vote a straight-party ticket but the candidate who was ed on her ballot in the presidential race was not her choice. The voter didn't mention which party she tried to vote for and Threat Level was unable to locate her to get more information.

A spokeswoman for the Texas secretary of state said that "local election officials are to investigate any allegation regarding a voting machine not correctly recording the choices a voter is trying to make. To our knowledge, no election worker in Texas has been able to recreate the situation described."

Spokeswoman Ashley Burton also said, "It is important for every voter to carefully examine the summary screen before they cast their ballot. If the voter experiences problems with candidate ion, they should request assistance from a poll worker. She also said machines are vigorously tested before they're used in elections.

Straight-party voting is allowed in the following 15 states: Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Several weeks ago in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, officials discovered during pre-election testing of optical-scan voting machines that the machines had been misprogrammed to record straight-party ballots. The machines would have counted all votes except those in the presidential and U.S. congressional races. When voters want to vote a straight-party ticket, they fill in an oval on the paper ballot. But the company that programmed the machines didn't link the oval to the presidential and U.S. congressional races in the ballot definition file.

[REMINDER TO VOTERS: If you have problems casting a ballot, please contact us at vote@wired.com or add a report about your issue to our election map so we can track and investigate problems that come up. If you're adding a report to the map, please provide as much detail as you can to make it possible for us to verify the information. If you can provide us with your name and contact information to follow up with you and get more details, that would be even better. If you don't feel comfortable putting your name on the map, contact us at vote@wired.com.]

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