Jeremy Epstein | What did Virginia learn about voting systems in 2008?

The election is over. But is it? What can we learn from the election itself?
First, optical scan systems are the voter’s friend. Forward-looking localities that added optical scan systems had far shorter lines than localities with only DRE (“touch screen”) machines. If lots of voters show up and you’re using optical scan, you hand out more pens and voting continues; if you’re using a DRE you’re out of luck and lines may result. We need optical scan systems uniformly across the Commonwealth.

Second, complex rules about who can vote early caused unnecessary confusion. Virginia law permits only excused absentee voting. Localities interpreted the law differently. Thus, what constituted an excuse varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Virginians need no excuse in person absentee voting, so everyone has the opportunity to vote when it is convenient.

Third, electronic pollbooks are not ready for prime time, as shown by the failures in Chesapeake, where entire precincts were shut down for hours due to problems, with no backup paper pollbooks. If we’re going to use electronic pollbooks, they need to be thoroughly tested before being used, particularly if there will not be paper backups.

Fourth, localities need to do better ballot review and testing. There were reports from around Virginia of missing races – including some localities that didn’t show the presidential race. Ballots could be published for public comment; problems could be identified and corrected upfront and ballot design could be improved.

Fifth, like most states, Virginia had many problems with voters who claimed to have registered at DMV but weren’t listed on the rolls, or who were dropped from the rolls for unexplained reasons. Virginia needs to do a better job of ensuring that voter registrations are processed correctly, including ensuring that applications are forwarded in a timely fashion to the State Board of Elections for distribution to the applicable registrars, and purging is done under procedures mandated by law and isn’t used for partisan purposes. The State Board of Elections should continue to encourage voters to verify their registration before showing up at the polls.

Sixth, if localities continue to use only DREs, the State Board of Elections should provide direction concerning the use of emergency paper ballots. This would include the number of paper ballots required to be on hand, and when they must be handed out. Fortunately, there were only relatively isolated equipment failures, but had the level of failures been as high as in some states, this lack of preparation could have disenfranchised voters in localities that did not have emergency ballots on hand.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, we need to fix Virginia’s inadequate audit and recount laws. Auditing is a good practice after every election to make sure that the machines counted votes correctly, but in Virginia it’s illegal except when the margin of victory is greater than 10 percent – so there’s no question who really won – and even then it’s optional. A majority of states have mandatory random audits after elections, and it’s time for Virginia to catch up.

Most voters would be surprised to learn that in Virginia a recount doesn’t actually hand count the ballots, rather optical scan ballots are rescanned and DREs are not recounted at all; there is nothing to recount (or audit). Virginia has had a number of very close races recently including the still undecided 5th Congressional race, the 2005 Attorney General race (McDonnell vs. Deeds), and 2006 Senate race (Allen vs. Webb) — showing that both parties are impacted by poor recount laws. The point of an election is to let the voters choose, not the technology, so we need technology that helps us count, but does not change the count. Real audits and recounts ensure that result.

The State Board of Elections and the local boards and staffs are hardworking people who struggle with several unmovable deadlines every year. It’s time for the General Assembly to give them the authority and resources they need to do a better job – so every voter in Virginia can have their vote counted accurately.


– Jeremy Epstein is a computer security expert and co-founder of the Verifiable Voting Coalition of Virginia, a nonpartisan advocacy group for fair and accurate elections in Virginia.

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