Long lines, computer glitches and other isolated problems marked Election Day 2016, a far cry from the widespread chaos, cyber-assault, vote-rigging and voter intimidation that had been predicted by both sides for months.
At least four counties in the battleground state of Pennsylvania reported malfunctions with their controversial electronic voting machines, giving Donald Trump evidence to level his charge that the presidential election isn’t happening on the up and up.
But the problems in Pennsylvania, according to Democrats, some Republicans and many computer scientists who know these aging voting machines best, are not out of the ordinary. The state’s top election official said the problems were isolated to only 25 machines statewide, out of about 25,000. What’s more, he insisted no votes have ultimately been miscounted.
“From our communications with the counties, it appears that no votes were cast inaccurately and no voters were disenfranchised,” said Pedro Cortes, the Democratic head of the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Mishaps earlier Tuesday in North Carolina did drive state election officials to agree to keep the polls open in Durham County precincts for between 20 to 60 extra minutes this evening because of a computer glitch that had forced local poll workers to check in voters manually. And in the battleground of New Hampshire, Democrats were leaning on a local judge to extend the poll closing time in Dover because of incorrect information sent out to voters, according to a Boston Globe report.
All in all, though, the problems across the country appeared to be minimal. Even Republican chairmen in crucial battleground counties in other parts of the country told POLITICO that everything was running smoothly through early afternoon – with no significant concerns about fraud, irregularities or vote-rigging.
“Things are moving well, “said Will Estrada, chairman of Virginia’s Loudoun County, which includes the Washington D.C. suburbs.
“We’re almost afraid to jinx ourselves candidly because it’s gone smoothly,” added Alex Triantafillou, chairman of Ohio’s Hamilton County, home of Cincinnati.
Among the more isolated problems in Pennsylvania, Republicans in Butler, Lebanon, Luzerne and Westmoreland counties have all reported that Trump votes flipped to Hillary Clinton, an error that could be exacerbated by the fact all of the counties appear to use the kinds of machines that don’t create a paper trail, and therefore make it impossible to conduct a post-election audit.
In Westmoreland County, a heavily Republican suburb of Pittsburgh, GOP chairman Michael Korns said in an interview that about a dozen voting machines were taken offline because they had been recording votes for Clinton that had been intended for Trump. “We started getting reports were miscalibrated and recording Republican votes as Democratic votes,” he said.
Korns said he was confident the issue had been resolved, but he was troubled by the fact he didn’t know how many votes were affected.
“As far as the question as to how many votes it affected, I can’t really tell you that, which is obviously incredibly disheartening to see that happen,” he said. “It’s really important that people have a lot of confidence in their vote.”
Problems with voting machines across the country have become a battle cry for Trump, who in an interview with FOX News declared: “There are reports that when people vote for Republicans, the entire ticket switches to Democrat. You have seen that, it is happening at various places today, it’s been reported. There are machines. You put down Republican and it registers them as a Democrat. And there have been lots of complaints about that today. We have to be careful, we have to see what it is.”
Later Tuesday, Trump took to Twitter to make another claim about errors with voting machines, but he inaccurately cited a CNN news report about a local problem. “Just out according to @CNN: ‘Utah officials report voting machine problems across entire country”
But the story cited in Trump’s post, which as of 5:45 p.m. EST had been retweeted more than 12,000 times, was actually about just one county in the state. That’s a point CNN was quick to note in its own on-air fact check.
Trump’s concerns about the voting problems, which he’d been warning about even before Election Day, were met with skepticism from within his own party. Indeed, after a particularly divisive election, Nov. 8 was marked, as least so far, by relative calm.
Pennsylvania GOP chairman Rob Gleason said in an interview that he’s got no reason to think anything “nefarious” is happening in any counties that have had the machine trouble. But he said he’s conferred with state party lawyers, who have been in contact with the Trump campaign to discuss whether it’s appropriate to go to court and seek remedies for the earlier issues.
“We’re not taking it lightly,” he said.
The Republican also emphasized that such machine issues happen every election and are likelier a function age than ill intent. “This happens every election. We always work our way through this,” he said. “These counties, they buy machines and they never even look at them.”
Gleason said he’s more nervous that taking machines offline could impact turnout during the evening rush.
“Being short a machine or two can be a problem. But if the people hang around, they’ll get to vote,” he said.
Voting machine problems were a factor in Butler County too.
“I’ve gotten numerous phone calls today from several municipalities within the county where there have been votes, whether the person voted a straight party Republican ticket or had gone through race by race selecting the Republican candidates, when it comes to the preview, the vote changes to Hillary Clinton and they’re hitting Trump and it comes up Clinton or it takes the Trump and when it goes to the preview it comes up Clinton,” the local GOP county chairman, Edward Natali, said.
Asked if anyone had failed in getting their votes properly cast, the GOP chair said: “As far as I understand, all those people were eventually able to get their votes recorded, but it may have had to be canceled or reset three or four times to get it to take the ballot. My concern is….how many people missed the review process thinking they voted for Donald Trump when it didn’t actually get recorded that way.”
Butler County Bureau of Elections Director Shari Brewer told POLITICO she was aware of three machines in her county that had alignment issues and were taken out of service to be recalibrated.
“Our machines are getting older so they come out of calibration much easier,” Brewer said. “These machines get jarred when they’re moved around. It’s kind of like when you hit a pothole in your car, it knocks the wheels out of alignment, so when people go vote it could happen.”
“Nobody was disenfranchised. As far as I know, everyone was able to vote the way they wanted to vote,” she said. “Everything was corrected.”
Asked about the possibility a voter might not notice his or her vote was misrecorded, Brewer said any calibration error would be obvious. “As soon as they push the button, it’s going to light up wrong. If it was incorrect, they would know,” she said.
Election officials blamed social media for giving fuel to rumors and exaggerating the voting problems.
“We heard from a lot of people who are worried they didn’t closely examine it and are worried whether their votes counted,” Lebanon County GOP chair Casey Long said. “Social media is contributing to a great deal of chaos.”
Long said he would wait for the election results before deciding whether to take further action.
Paperless balloting machines like the ones used in many parts of Pennsylvania have long been known to be a vulnerability to the U.S. election system, with its nearly 10,000 diverse jurisdictions that all come with their own rules and where each deploys different voting technologies. Five states entirely rely on these kinds of machines: Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware and New Jersey, while a handful of others partly use them, including Florida, Virginia and Texas.
Multiple digital security researchers told POLITICO these are the risks officials take when they rely on aging electronic voting equipment like the kind used in Pennsylvania. To them, such troubles are expected.
“There’s always some problems of this nature,” said Herb Lin, a senior cyber policy scholar at the Hoover Institution who tracks electronic voting flaws.
Alex Halderman, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Michigan who has researched voting machine security, explained that “the problems in Pennsylvania are almost certainly just miscalibrated screens.”
“These machines use an outdated touch screen technology — resistive touch screens,” he added.
“Unlike the screen on your smartphone, these screens need to be periodically recalibrated by poll workers, or else they lose the alignment between the position that’s touched and what’s displayed on the screen.”
Election watchdog groups have long expressed concerns that these types of digital flaws can lead to allegations of fraud that are hard to easily prove or dismiss without an auditable paper trail that verifies electronic votes. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that does not have such a process.
Still, Lin said the type of technical flaw seen in Pennsylvania was unlikely to favor one candidate. “I expect not to see widespread problems that all point in the same direction,” he said.
Election machine problems weren’t the only attack strategy for the Trump campaign. It also tried to challenge the election results in Nevada, a hotly contested battleground state. In a legal action filed Monday, the campaign accused the Clark County registrar of keeping an early voting location open for two extra hours to aid Democratic turnout. Clark County, in a statement on Twitter, responded to the challenge by noting is already preserving early voting records, as required by state law.
And a local judge, during a Tuesday mid-day hearing, quickly denied Trump’s legal action because the campaign hadn’t tried to work out a solution with the county registrar.
As more than 100 million Americans went to the polls, the civil rights groups monitoring the election painted a grim picture of how the system was working. They warned that the combination of caustic campaign rhetoric, Trump’s calls for his supporters to be on guard against election fraud, and the fallout from the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision tossing out a key provision of the Voting Rights Act had actually unleashed widespread confusion and upheaval.
“There is tremendous disruption at the polls today all across the country,” Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, told reporters during a briefing in Washington.
But the examples advocates offered Tuesday involving various incidents of voter intimidation and harassment came off as more isolated – a lack of Spanish-language translators in Miami, demands for voter ID in Pennsylvania, long lines in Virginia because of machine problems – that didn’t quite match up with the high-pitched rhetoric Americans have been hearing that suggested widespread, broad-based disruptions.
Martin Matishak, Sergio Bustos and Victoria Guida contributed to this report.
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