Beware new malfunction in Diebold voting machines

This editorial appeared in The New York Times.

Election officials, who will have plenty on their minds on Nov. 4, have one more thing to worry about: Diebold electronic voting machines that drop votes.

Ohio's secretary of state raised the alarm after local officials reported problems with the March primary count. Diebold has since notified more than 30 states to be on the lookout for missing votes.

In the early days of electronic voting, critics who warned that it was unreliable were dismissed as alarmist. Now it seems that hardly an election goes by without reports of serious vulnerabilities or malfunctions.

In the case of Diebold, votes are being dropped when they are transferred from individual machines to the central server in a county's election headquarters. When an election worker inserts the memory card from a machine into the server, a green arrow is supposed to light up after all of the votes have been uploaded and added to the county's totals. In some cases, the green arrow is wrong, and none of the votes have been added.

When election officials in Ohio's Butler County first spotted the problem, Premier Election Solutions — a unit of Diebold — suggested that anti-virus software on the voting machines or human error was at fault.

That turned out not to be true; the fault was Diebold's. In August, the company notified clients of the software glitch, advising election officials not to rely on the green arrow, but to use alternative methods of checking that every memory card — and every vote — is counted.

When dropped votes are noticed — and so far they appear to have been — they can be recovered. But the flaw is troubling, the latest in a long line of problems.

Computer scientists have shown that electronic voting machines are easy to hack. And voters report errors like vote flipping, in which the vote they cast for one candidate is recorded for another. Ohio's secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, is suing Diebold, contending that its machines crashed repeatedly during last year's voting in Cuyahoga County, which contains Cleveland.

There is no time left between now and Election Day for states and localities to upgrade their machines or even to fix the vote-dropping software. All they can do is double-check their vote totals, audit their paper trails and be on the lookout for the next, as-yet-undiscovered computer glitch.

After that, Congress must require that all states adopt voting systems that include voter-verifiable paper records for every electronic vote cast.