With many races in Tuesday's midterm elections in the U.S. relying on electronic voting machines, elections officials and a plethora of watchdogs groups are keeping an eye on balloting to see how the various e-voting systems work.
About 66 million voters, or about 38 percent nationwide, will be able to use e-voting machines in Tuesday's elections, according to Election Data Services Inc., a Washington-based consulting firm.
Matt Zimmerman, a staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit privacy and digital rights group, said that the states being closely watched Tuesday for potential problems include Ohio, Florida, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
"There's certain places [being watched] like Ohio and Florida -- just because they're Ohio and Florida and they're going through procedural problems that we've seen" in the past, Zimmerman said. "Over the last few election cycles, these states have had issues."
In Tennessee, many counties have bought new electronic voting machines that will be used for the first time, leading to concerns about potential problems with the rollouts, he said. In Pennsylvania, there are concerns about whether e-voting machine vendors made needed changes to their equipment -- and whether the machines will work as expected, Zimmerman said.
"Using past elections as a guide is tough because so many more jurisdictions are using these machines for the first time," he said.
If voters have problems casting ballots anywhere in the nation, they can call a toll-free Election Protection Coalition hot line set up to report issues: (866) OUR-VOTE, or (866) 687-8683. EFF is a member of the coalition, which includes the People for the American Way Foundation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Problems could include hardware that doesn't properly record or cast ballots, machines that switch votes to other candidates on their electronic summary screens, or ones that reboot or crash as people attempt to vote. "Don't let concerns about the machines keep you from the polls," Zimmerman said. "If you have concerns [or problems voting}, the only way they're going to be fixed is if you let us know about it."
Courtenay Strickland Bhatia, president of San Francisco-based VerifiedVoting.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan lobbying group that supports reliable and publicly verifiable elections, said problems are likely to affect states with close races, histories of past election problems and where lots of new e-voting machines are being introduced.
"This is the largest shift in voting equipment in our nation's history," Bhatia said. That means balloting will require stepped-up efforts by local elections officials, poll workers and voters to make sure they go smoothly. "We need citizens watching," she said.
A key problem, Bhatia said, is that because many areas are using e-voting machines that lack a paper trail, problems that are reported might not be properly checked out. That lack of records means "that the problems we see on Election Day will be the tip of the iceberg," she said.
Since e-voting machines may not even indicate that a problem has occurred, there's no way to ensure that a voter's intentions are carried out, Bhatia said. "We need a safety net in case of fraud or machine failure," she added. "A routine manual audit and voter-verified paper records provide that safety net."