Plans to use electronic voting machines in Tuesday's presidential election appear to be largely unaltered in states that were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.
Despite widespread power outages and other hurricane related damage, election officials in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware remained confident that their electronic voting machines would be up and running on Election Day.
The four states are among 17 in the nation where voters will use paperless Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines to cast their ballots. Of these states, New Jersey, Delaware and five others will use paperless machines statewide. All ballots cast in these states will be on DREs that support no paper trail. The other states, which include Texas, Colorado, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania, will use a mix of paper ballots and DRE voting systems that are paperless.
Election watchdog groups such as Verified Voting and Common Cause have expressed concern over the use of paperless DREs because they say votes cast using such machines are much harder to audit compared with paper ballots. The widespread power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy heightened these concerns and prompted some to wonder what would happen if power was not restored in time for the elections in these states.
"While most of those states require a small percentage of emergency paper ballots be made available at the precincts, that number is unlikely to be enough in the event that voting machines are unavailable all day at the polls on November 6th," cautioned veteran blogger Brad Friedman, who maintains a blog that chronicles election issues.
Battery backups on the electronic touch-screen systems are unreliable at best and, even when working, can only be counted on for a small number of hours, Friedman wrote. "Power loss on Election Day is just another, among a myriad of reasons why forcing voters to use such systems is insane and extraordinarily disrespectful to the electorate in such jurisdictions," he wrote. Friedman is one among many election observers who says that paper ballots offer the most reliable option for voters.
But election officials in some of the hurricane-affected states insisted they would be ready despite the challenges.
Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said the commonwealth was still gathering information from counties about damage to the state's 9,300 or so polling stations and evoting equipment from the storm. Current indications are that all but a handful of polling stations in the southeastern part of the state will be functioning normally next Tuesday, he said.
Almost all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties are slated to use paperless DRE's next week. Gov. Tom Corbett has been in touch with state utility companies to get power restored to all polling stations as quickly as possible, Ruman said. Utility companies have said that once they finish restoring services to hospitals and first responders they will address polling place outages, he said.
As of late Thursday, more than 150,000 residents in 29 Pennsylvania counties were without power. "Utility companies have pledged they will have all polling stations back online by the elections. We are hopeful that at least the vast majority of polls will be powered before Tuesday," Ruman said
Polling places that do not have power on election day will still be able to use the battery backup on DRE systems to turn the systems on and keeping them running for several hours, Ruman said. The state government also recommended that each precinct have paper ballots for at least 20% to 25% of the electorate in case of problems with the evoting machines, he said. It's also likely that some voters may have to go to other polling places to cast their votes, but that happens with a lot of other elections, he said.
Nikki Sheridan, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Board of Elections, said the state anticipates using its electronic voting machines in all jurisdictions next week. Virginia, which is a seen as a crucial swing state, managed to escape the storm relatively unscathed but still suffered substantial power outages in some regions.
"We have been in contact with major utility providers and we are scheduled to be up in all polling locations by close of business [Thursday]," Sheridan said. Absentee voting in person, the term Virginia uses for early voting, resumed Wednesday after a two-day hiatus because of the storm, she said. So far, out of the state's 2,500 polling places, only one has been moved because it was rendered unusable by the storm, she said.
Well before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast with devastating force earlier this week, election officials at New Jersey's Cape May County were preparing for its arrival. All electronic voting machines in the county were programmed and electronic poll books containing voter lists were readied for all 127 of its voting districts. The machines were shipped to a secure mainland location away from the storm's fury. County officials urged voters to vote by mail-in ballot to minimize problems after the storm, and more than 5,100 of the county's 69,000 or so voters responded.
By next Tuesday, Cape May will have its voting machines ready despite the havoc wreaked by the storm, said Rita Fulginiti, Cape May County's clerk and adjuster.
"Our coastal communities here in Cape May County experienced a great deal of destruction from Sandy but we fared better than many of our sister counties throughout New Jersey," Fulginiti said. "Only two out of our 58 polling places are questionable five days before election, and we have alternative sites," Fulginiti said, adding that the county will be ready to use its DRE systems on Tuesday.
"Of course we have contingency plans for Election Day disasters but fortunately we won't be using them for Sandy," she said.
The city of Chesapeake in Virginia is among a handful of jurisdictions in the state that will use paper ballots and electronic scanners to record the vote. Though the city dodged Sandy, it has equipped all of its electronic voting equipment with back-up batteries that have been fully charged, said William Spradlin, general registrar for the city.
"We do have contingency back up plans in place for all of our equipment," Spradlin said. "In the case of the electronic scanners, every precinct will have emergency ballot boxes, to collect ballots for later counting if we have a failure with a scanner on Election Day," said. All electronic poll books have been backed up with a paper poll book, which would be used in the event of any problems with the electronic poll books, he said.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Read more about government it in Computerworld's Government IT Topic Center.