Tuesday could be a long day for election officials in states relying on electronic-voting machines to record votes in the US presidential election, if early reports of malfunctions are any indication.
Problems with e-voting machines were reported early on election day in several US states, including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which are identified as battleground states where the outcome of the vote could tip the presidential race in favour of either Democratic Sen. Barack Obama or Republican Sen. John McCain.
According to voter reports on the ground and from watchdog organisations, there were problems with getting e-voting machines up and running in these key states and others, and in some cases the machines would crash during the voting process and had to be rebooted.
Pennsylvania and Virginia were among states Verified Voting, an advocacy group focused on improving voting systems, and other watchdog organisations said they would keep a close eye on for voting problems. Neither state had early voting before Nov. 4, nor do they require paper-trail backups with the touchscreen electronic-voting machines in place at polls.
Critics of e-voting say that without a paper trail, there's no way to audit the results of a touchscreen machine, often called DREs, or direct recording electronic machines.
Some polling locations can give voters so-called "emergency" paper ballots, but this is not the case in all locations, said Pamela Smith, executive director of Verified Voting, in an interview early Tuesday. "There is no clear policy on emergency paper ballots, or on when to distribute them so voters can still vote," she said.
Moreover, if there is widespread failure with machines, locations with paper ballots are "concerned they'll run out," Smith said.
This, in fact, happened at one location in northern New Jersey Tuesday morning, where emergency paper ballots were gone by as early as 9:30 a.m. local time. Polling officials began making photocopies of paper ballots because people who came to vote were leaving the site, frustrated by the delay.
By 10am local time, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper in Virginia reported on its blog of voting news that it received widespread reports of e-voting problems, including trouble with the wireless communication systems of voting machines in Godwin, which the registrar there was quoted as attributing to human error. While that issue was fixed by about 6:45am, other e-voting miscues were cited by the newspaper, as well as reports of a problem with ballots jamming in the feed of a machine that reads marked ballots.
Voter-registration problems also were being widely reported to election watchdog groups by voters in Virginia, as well as in Florida, Pennsylvania and other key states. Crowds swelled at polling places, and police in many locales were called to help direct traffic around voting sites.
However, official reports were at odds with some of those watchdog reports during the morning.
The Election Protection watchdog site had reports or problems with e-voting machines from "numerous polling locations" in Columbus, Ohio. Asked about those, Jeff Ortega, the spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, said that office had not received reports of major problems regarding machine problems there.
"The polls opened on time, the average longest wait is about an hour -- in many cases, it's much shorter than that," he said, adding that there were "no major problems to speak of."
However, the Associated Press reported that there were problems when a "handful" of machines malfunctioned in Fairfield County, which is southeast of Columbus, while the wrong paper ballots were sent to two precincts, according to Debbie Henderly, the elections director there.
In Philadelphia, someone who answered the phone in the deputy city commissioner's office said there were "no more problems than usual" with e-voting machines in that area, though it was one in which there were numerous reports of machine malfunctions.
A direct call to the office of Deputy City Commissioner Fred Voigt was not returned Tuesday morning.
Illinois was another state where voters were reporting problems with machines, Verified Voting's Smith said. However, Illinois is not considered a battleground state, as it is the home state of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Obama, and he is widely projected by pollsters to win the election there.
The race between the two candidates is closer in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia, according to polls taken before election day.
Nancy Weil in Boston and Marc Ferranti in New Jersey contributed to this report.
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