Big Presidential Vote Count Error Found and Fixed in New Mexico

October 3, 2008

A test in Santa Fe County finds and fixes an error that could have cost Democrats thousands of votes

by Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet

An electronic voting machine test in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, on Friday revealed a programming error that, had it not been caught and corrected before the start of early voting next week, would not have counted hundreds -- or possibly thousands -- of votes for president and U.S. Senate in this Democratic stronghold.

The software error concerned straight party voting, where voters fill in one oval on their paper ballot that indicates they want to vote for all the candidates from a political party. The test revealed that the precinct optical-scanner computers, which read hand-marked paper ballots and compile the precinct vote totals, were not counting "straight party" votes for president and U.S. Senate.

"It was a simple error," said Rick Padilla, a senior system supervisor for the Santa Fe County Clerk office, which runs county elections. "When they did the programming, they didn't link the oval to the (presidential and senatorial votes on the) straight party ticket."

"It is one of the things that always has to be checked really carefully in a general election," said Terry Rainey of Automated Election Services, the company that programs the tabulator and provides other voting services in New Mexico. "That is why we test."

Padilla and Rainey both said that the vote count programming error was not found in any other New Mexico county. Across the state, county officials were testing voting machines before the start of early voting on Tuesday. No explanation was given for what caused the programming error.

"The county was trying to get a head start," Rainey said, describing its testing. "They saw it today in a real live test. It was fixed to the satisfaction of the (county) Democratic and Republican party chairs."

County political leaders could not be reached for comment late Friday.

The problem occurred in the ballot definition file, a software program that tells the tabulating device, in this case the ES&S Model 100 precinct based optical scanner, how to interpret the voter's marks on the ballot. As Ellen Theisen of VotersUnite.org explained in her paper "Ballot Definition Files:"

"Ballot definition data is constructed for each specific election and contains all the details about that election. The DRE or optical scanner uses the ballot data to determine how selections on the screen or ballot are recorded in the vote database, which contains the results. The tally software uses the ballot data as a 'key' when it interprets the content of the vote database and calculates the final tallies. Without the ballot data, the system cannot function. With incorrect ballot data, the system functions incorrectly."

New Mexico Election Integrity Issues

Since the 2004 election, New Mexico has shifted to voting on hand-marked paper ballots that are scanned by optical scan computer counters. That transition came after election integrity activists found that paperless electronic voting machines used in the 2004 presidential election did not record more than 21,000 votes for president -- many in historically Democratic strongholds.

There were many explanations offered for the so-called presidential undervote, but the activists tend to believe that voters may have touched the electronic voting machine's screen more than once, which, instead of emphasizing the presidential choice, actually deselected or erased their presidential vote.

Because George W. Bush beat John Kerry in 2004 in New Mexico by slightly less than 6,000 votes, the high undervote rate was among the factors that prompted the state to return to using hand-marked paper ballots. That way, if there was another close count, county election officials could audit or recount the paper ballots to settle disputes, advocates argued.

What is unsettling about the test in Santa Fe County on Friday was the fact that the error affected the two most hotly contested races on the ballot -- president and U.S. senator. A more likely programming error would have have either affected all the party's candidates globally or a single race.

Friday's test raised eyebrows because while it could have affected voters in both parties who voted a straight party ticket, Santa Fe County is predominantly Democratic. In February 2008, more than 20,000 people participated in the Democratic presidential caucus. In contrast, 4,445 voted in the county's Republican primary in June.

Thus, hundreds if not thousands of potential presidential votes -- most for Democrats -- could have been lost had county officials not discovered the software error in testing.

A ballot definition file error could cause miscounts or lost votes on any electronic voting system. The only check on the accuracy of these files occurs during pre-election testing.

The M100 tabulator is used in numerous swing states such as Montana, Iowa and Indiana, according to VerifiedVoting.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks electronic voting issues.

"The main thing is this is a recoverable error," said Pam Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation. "In New Mexico they have paper ballots. They can recount them if you need to. New Mexico has a (vote count) audit provision (in state law). … In another state, if this happens, you could miss a ballot definition file error."

"That is something that other jurisdictions should be aware of," Smith said. "They should do pilot audits."