Fairfax County’s E-Voting Debacle

Well, Tuesday was Election Day, and that means it was Fairfax County’s first chance to try out their brand-spanking-new touch-screen voting machines — the ones I railed about a while back.

How did it go? Um, not so well:

The new machines, meant to simplify voting, made the tallying of the votes more problematic. More than half of precinct officials resorted to the old-fashioned telephone to call in their numbers or even drove the results to headquarters, elections officials said. A handful of precincts went back to paper ballots.
County elections officials said it was the slowest performance in memory for counting votes on election night. The problem came when precinct workers tried to electronically send results from the 953 new machines to election headquarters, unexpectedly overloading computer servers.
When the electronic system of sending results over telephone modems failed, precinct workers tried to call in the results but got busy signals. Many decided it would be quicker to drive.

Yeah, you know you’ve got a well-designed system on your hands when it’s faster to put the ballots in a car and drive them to the board of elections office than it is to use the system to upload them. And remember that this was an off-year election, which usually have very low turnout — imagine how much worse things will be if these machines are in use next year, when people turn out to vote for President, if these machines choke on uploading the results of a few races for the state legislature.

And, we find out today that performance wasn’t the only problem — it turns out that Fairfax’s voting machines don’t know how to count, either:

School Board member Rita S. Thompson (R), who lost a close race to retain her at-large seat, said yesterday that the new computers might have taken votes from her. Voters in three precincts reported that when they attempted to vote for her, the machines initially displayed an “x” next to her name but then, after a few seconds, the “x” disappeared.
In response to Thompson’s complaints, county officials tested one of the machines in question yesterday and discovered that it seemed to subtract a vote for Thompson in about “one out of a hundred tries,” said Margaret K. Luca, secretary of the county Board of Elections.
“It’s hard not to think that I have been robbed,” said Thompson, whose 77,796 recorded votes left her 1,662 shy of reelection.

Now, my friend Oscar said on his blog that I saw all this coming, but that’s not really true. What I was concerned about was the potential for people to exploit the weak encryption on these machines’ wireless connections to either spy on people’s ballots, or actually change them — that seemed like the sort of technical detail that election bureaucrats would be likely to overlook. I never imagined that they wouldn’t have tested the devices to see if they could do simple tasks like count votes or report totals! And yet, that seems to be exactly what occurred.

This raises three obvious questions:

  • If the Fairfax County election supervisors didn’t even bother to test the machines on these basic functions before shelling out $3.5 million of the taxpayers’ money for them, what testing, if any, did they do? Or did they just cut a check to the first company with a slick PowerPoint presentation to blow into town?
  • The problems we’ve heard about so far — erroneous counts, faulty connections, slow uploading, etc. — are all problems that are immediately evident. However, the problem I originally pointed out — someone hacking the wireless link — would happen silently, without any obvious signs to the untrained eye. Now that the citizens of Fairfax know that the WINVote machines are flawed, do they plan on asking the elections supervisors to audit the election results to prove they haven’t been tampered with, as well?
  • And the big question: How big of an incompetent do you have to be to lose your job in the Fairfax County government? These people blew millions of taxpayer dollars, threw several elections into disarray, prompted lawsuits out the wazoo, and potentially blew the confidentiality of people’s ballots wide open. Why those of you who live in Fairfax aren’t calling for their heads, I have no idea.



November 6, 2003
2:23 pm

I voted in Arlington, where they had the same machines.
No problems reported up here, but it felt strange pressing some buttons on a touch screen and walking away, assuming that everything was recorded ok.
Of course, I can assume the machines did work because all of the democrats won, and we really only had one legitimate contender in one local race from the GOP.