Voting Machines Truncating Candidate Names

Charlottesville finds itself in the national spotlight, embarrassingly, after the Washington Post today reported that Jim Webb’s name is too long to appear on our electronic voting equipment. Charlottesville voters will choose between voting for “George Allen” or “James H. ‘Jim’,” something that may leave voters scratching their heads. That’s because the screen on the Hart InterCivic eSlate can’t fit all of the text in Webb’s name. The problem isn’t new — it’s been ongoing since the city first bought the equipment four years ago.

I’ve never been a fan of the eSlates (the scrollwheel interface is clever on an iPod, but ridiculously laborious for the purpose of writing out text, such as write-in vote), or really electronic voting at all, but this seems particularly egregious. It would seem to me that the appropriate measure would be for the State Board of Elections to grant an exception to Charlottesville, with the permission of Jim Webb, to list him simply as “Jim Webb,” but apparently the plan is to leave things as they are and to post signs describing the problem.

Electoral Board member Rick Sincere has weighed in on this, explaining how the problem came to be and what’s being done about it. Look for more on this from Bob Gibson in Wednesday’s Daily Progress.

10/25 Update: “Phred” points out that the problem is on the summary page shown before casting the ballot, not when voters are selecting a candidate, meaning that the problem is inconsistent. I don’t know if that’s better or worse.

19 thoughts on “Voting Machines Truncating Candidate Names”

  1. That’s just insane. In this day and age, we should be advanced enough to fit a candidate’s name on the ballot. How are we going to give Iraq a decent democracy if we can’t do it ourselves?

  2. I’d think if they can’t fit the full name they should do it last names only “Allen” and “Webb” it would be pretty difficult to misunderstand those, especially considering the last names are often the most legible on the campaign yard signs.

    As for electronic voting. I think it’s a bad Idea. I’d support something like the “Ink-a-dot” system which works like the old punch card system, only instead of punching a hole you leave an ink mark.

  3. Seems that if they simply changed it from James W. “Jim” Webb to Jim Webb the case would be closed. That said, it is absolutely insane that there are only around 14 characters available for a candidate’s name. That seems like way too few.

  4. Not that it’s not a problem, but it’s not quite the problem that it sounds like according to Waldo’s post.

    The error shows up only on the summary page, where voters are asked to review their selections before hitting the button to cast their votes. Webb’s full name appears on the page where voters choose for whom to vote.

    In other words, when you actually cast your vote, you will see “James H. ‘Jim’ Webb” in the listing. It’s not until the summary page that you will see “James H. ‘Jim’,” but at that point, don’t you know who you’re voting for?

    Yes, it’s a problem. No, it’s not the end of democracy or anything close to that. Yes, it should (and will, according to media reports) be fixed for future elections.

  5. This isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. The 25-word summary of what’s wrong with electronic voting: “Electronic voting is a quantum leap forward for dishonest people who want to commit voter fraud, because nobody can prove anything happened.”

    You should be writing your representatives and demanding a solution. The problems in the 2000 and 2004 elections were specifically designed to ensure a broad cry for “modernizing” voting technology so elections can be faked on a massive scale.

    For more information, read these papers on the flaws in voting machines by researchers at Princeton and Rop Gonggrijp et al.

    This is not news. Computer security experts have been kicking and screaming about the flaws in voting machines for years. And guess who ELSE benefits from “modernizing” voting? Diebold. Who promised to “deliver Ohio’s votes to Bush” in 2004? Diebold’s CEO.

    If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

  6. Saw this after my previous post: Engadget Post

    Since names are displayed properly on the pages of the individual races, this is admittedly not the world’s greatest threat to democracy, but it does highlight the ridiculous amount of red tape required to fix a problem with these devices — in this case, making adjustments for the larger font size being used.

  7. Charlottesville election official Rick Sincere says that this problem of truncated names has been known to voting officials for several years. Did voting officials tell candidates exactly how many spaces they would have available for their name at the time the candidates decided just how they wanted their name to appear on the ballot?

    If they told them, I’d say the problem with Mr. Webb’s shortened name is his own fault. If they didn’t tell them, then this mess is the fault of election officials. Which is it?

  8. Give us paper ballots. For God’s sake just give us regular paper ballots with no more stupid computer problems. Just once I’d like to have an election in which I can have some measure of confidence in the legitimacy of the outcome.

  9. Yes, the Help America Vote Act has just been slop in the trough of shoddy government contractors. Not to mention the insulting name.

    But remeber the old lever machines were still in use in some places in 2000, and they had no audit trail either, just a mechanical counter for each lever. The scannable full page ballot looks like the best, simplest technology now. Trying to fix the touch screen crappola by adding a printer would just lead to more breakdowns and failures.

    Any independent analysis shows this, and probably leaves the investigators wondering why they have to waste their time on such a simple thing. It’s like deciding that cars should have wheels.

  10. Harry Landers has a good point: the voting officials could have told the candidates. But they didn’t–I’ve been volunteering with the campagin, and I was in the office when everyone found out.

    Still, the Webb people are doing everything they can to identify the best possible solution to the problem (given the short notice).

    For more discussion on this issue and other voters’ rights issues, check out

  11. But remeber the old lever machines were still in use in some places in 2000, and they had no audit trail either, just a mechanical counter for each lever.

    Yeah, but you could open them up and make sure that they worked. These computer-based ones are black boxes. The programming code that runs them is considered a trade secret, and nobody — whether poll workers or the state board of elections — is allowed to look at it. I don’t trust my vote to a trade secret, a black box, or some little software company. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to inspect the code.

  12. So many comments, so little time.

    I have written elsewhere — most recently in a letter to the editor of the Washington Times — about the hazards of relying on paper ballots. The vast majority of election fraud over the past two decades has been paper-based (either paper ballots or paper registration forms). It is far easier to change an election result by marring, crumpling, “misplacing,” or tearing paper ballots than it is to hack into a secure machine.

    In response to Harry Landers:

    Certainly the political parties active in Alexandria, Charlottesville, and Falls Church have known about this issue for several election cycles, since the truncation of names on the summary page (and only on the summary page, nowhere else on the ballot itself) has affected other candidates, both Democrats and Republicans.

    Mr. Webb’s name appeared on the June primary ballot in exactly the same configuration, and either nobody noticed or nobody cared. So he certainly would have — or should have — known by August, when the State Board of Elections began approving ballot styles that were being submitted by local election officials.

    There is probably a procedure whereby a candidate can change the way his name appears on the general election ballot after it has already appeared on a primary ballot. But keep in mind that he must use the same form of his name on every ballot in the state; it must be uniform. (The summary page is not the “ballot”; it is just a courtesy to voters to let them recheck their choices before pushing the “cast vote” button. The machines we used before electronic voting — levers and punch-cards — did not include this courtesy feature.)

    Waldo — do you ask your bank for permission to inspect the code they use for internal or external funds transfers, or for the code that operates the ATMs you use to deposit or withdraw money from your account? If you did, would they let you? And if they let you, wouldn’t you put your money in another bank because they will let anyone examine their code?

    Finally, I recommend that CvilleNews readers look at Bob Gibson’s story in today’s Daily Progress, or check out the videos of David Douglas’ report on Channel 29 or Philip Stewart’s on Channel 19. All three of these journalists have done their homework and have reported the story in an accurate, non-hysterical manner.

  13. Waldo — do you ask your bank for permission to inspect the code they use for internal or external funds transfers, or for the code that operates the ATMs you use to deposit or withdraw money from your account?

    I don’t need to — not only do they give me a receipt with every transaction (unlikely voting machines), but I can balance my account. At the end of the month they give me all of the information that I need to make sure that they have gotten my transactions right, to the penny.

    That said, I have done so. I worked with my bank to perform just such an inspection several years ago. But that is an extraordinary circumstance, and not the response that you’d get from 999,999 in 1,000,000 cases. But it’s worth exploring this metaphor further. My bank is a mere licensee of this software. I trust my bank to ensure that their software is running properly, because I am a customer of the bank, while they are a customer of the software company. It is their job to inspect the code, as I know they have done. Likewise, Charlottesville is a licensee of the software that they have me use to vote. But they cannot inspect it as my bank can inspect their software.

    There is no such analog to a balance statement in voting. I cannot (nor should I) get a statement each year with a record of the votes that I’ve cast in the past 12 months, so that I can ensure everything was recorded properly. Instead, I must be able to unhesitatingly rely on the process. As the process is deliberately hidden from me, I cannot.

    Finally, my bank account is FDIC insured. If they screw up, I’m covered, no matter my bank’s problems. With regard to my vote — something far more fundamental — I enjoy no such benefits.

  14. While I appreciate the methods by which the candidate “could have” or even “should have” know about the truncated name, it would seem to me that, since elections officials, undoubtedly, did know about the problem, that it would have been wise for those elections officials to specifically notify candidates of the problem.

    I’m imagining that there’s a form that candidates fill out saying just how they want their name to read. If there’s some limitation on how that name will be printed (on the ballot, on the summary page, anywhere it will be printed), wouldn’t it be best for there to be included on that form words to the effective of “a maximum of x characters may be used”? Shouldn’t notification of that limitation be an affirmative responsibility of election officials?

    I don’t suggest that there’s anything diabolical, but it’s not right to blame the candidate for the failure of the ballot process.

  15. Rick, those three journalists may have reported the story in an accurate manner, but after reading/watching the reports, only David Douglas was the most thorough. Both the newspaper and Channel 19 neglected the fact that Gail Parker’s name will be truncated on the summary page. The latter didn’t even mention that party affiliations for all three candidates would not appear on the summary page. And where’s the mention by any of the three that the “Jr.” in Virgil Goode’s name would be partially excluded? I believe video from one of the stories showed only “Virgil H. Goode, J” on the summary page. I understand there are time and column-inch limitations, but facts are facts and a complete story is a complete story…which none of these was.

  16. I don’t recall this problem in the Primary. Everything worked fine. I also don’t recall this in any previous election using the electronic machines. Has there been a shift in font style since then? If so, why?

  17. What’s with (the lack of) Charlottesville’s technology? As if getting HDTV through Adelphia — something not available in Charlottesville — weren’t enough, I just voted eletronically (touchscreen) in Stuarts Draft and the names weren’t truncated at all on any pages.

    And people think I moved to Podunk, VA. It seems Charlottesville’s becoming a bit more podunk than Podunk.

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