Election 2012: New Voting Tech Caused Some Headaches

President Obama was re-elected on Tuesday, but not without glitches and malfunctions reported by users of digital voting technologies.
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The 2012 election relied more heavily on technology, including digital voting, than ever before. While voters came out en masse to narrowly re-elect President Barack Obama, not everything went exactly as planned. There were plenty of examples of broken and malfunctioning voting machines, a flawed email voting scheme in New Jersey and other problems.

Reports of problems with voting machines started even before Election Day. On Monday, the Ohio Green Party chairman filed suit seeking removal of software upgrades on voting machines in 39 Ohio counties because they were not tested or certified as required by law. Early voters in Pueblo, Colo., and Adams County, Colo., reported that voting machines were changing their votes.

One of the big stories on election day was a video, initially posted to YouTube and Reddit, of an electronic voting machine in Perry County, Penn., repeatedly changing a vote for President Obama to one for Mitt Romney. The video, which received more than 500,000 views throughout the day, showed the error in real time as the voter pressed next to President Obama's name only to have Mitt Romney's name selected.

According to reports, the machine was taken out of service once the problem was indicated, but was later recalibrated and placed online, with no further problem reports.

Machines changing votes weren't the only problem of the day. In many locations, there were examples of machines that were on the fritz. For example, in heavily populated Cuyahoga County in swing state Ohio, there were a number of reports that ballot counting machines were jammed, with some having to be replaced, despite having been tested before Election Day.

Some voting machines were also reported to be malfunctioning or broken in places as distant as Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York City, Rehoboth, Mass., Milwaukee, Columbia, S.C., Chandler, Ariz., and South Florida. A number of these problems led to long lines at the polls. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was quoted calling his city's new voting system, which included a new scanner, a "nightmare."

On Saturday, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey announced that it would allow those affected by the storm to vote by email. Security researchers and political academics quickly expressed concern about hacking.

However, it wasn't hacking that caused the most trouble, but rather confusion and a full email inbox. Many people did not know where to send applications. Additionally, according to reports, the email addresses of clerks in populous Morris and Essex counties were not receiving emails. Also, the Essex County clerk's substitute, reachable via a personal Hotmail account, appeared to have protected the account with only a weak security question.

There was also a problem of overflowing inboxes. "It has become apparent that the county clerks are receiving applications at a rate that outpaces their capacity to process them without an extension of the current schedule," New Jersey's Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno said in a statement released Tuesday. "Given this extraordinary volume, if a displaced voter can vote by other means, they are urged to do so." In the end, New Jersey said that the state would continue to accept electronic ballots through Friday.

Despite the glitches, new technology also played a positive part in the elections. For example, online voter registration was on the rise in the 2012 registration. Washington state, for example, made use of a Facebook app to register new voters. Other states allowing online registration included California, Maryland, Nevada and Washington, D.C.

Additionally, some disabled voters in Oregon voted on Samsung Series 7 tablets running Windows 8 rather than custom-made and expensive voting machines. One precinct in Virginia pilot tested a Microsoft Surface tablet as a voting device.

Outside the voting booth, new technology played a starring role for voters and vote watchers. Voting apps allowed people to share on Facebook the fact that they had voted, while a widget on Google's homepage showed people where to vote and many online news outlets updated vote counts in close to real time. The vote ended up as the most-Tweeted event of all time.

More than half of federal agencies are saving money with cloud computing, but security, compatibility, and skills present huge problems, according to our survey. Also in the Cloud Business Case issue of InformationWeek Government: President Obama's record on IT strategy is long on vision but short on results. (Free registration required.)