Balky vote machines, long lines, internet trolls make for troubled Election Day

Malfunctioning voting machines, long lines and lengthy delays at some polling places and internet trolls seeking to sabotage the vote made for some glitches on Election Day.

Hundreds of voters waited in lines snaking outside of precincts in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Arizona, and some polling places stayed open well past scheduled closing time.

Despite problems with balky and malfunctioning voting machines that bedeviled election workers in Michigan and Wisconsin in the Upper Midwest, Georgia, the Carolinas and Texas, federal officials said they saw no sign of the foreign hacking they feared might offer a painful sequel to the 2016 presidential vote.

“At this time, we have no indication of compromise of our nation’s election infrastructures that would prevent voting, change vote counts or distress the ability to tally votes,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters.

Voting machine problems emerged in the Upper Midwest, hit the Southeast, and across the south. In Texas, one election monitor said some Hart Intercivic eSlate machines in use in 30 percent of the counties in the state were tallying votes improperly.

“The machines are switching votes between candidates. We shouldn’t tolerate this outcome in 2018,” said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a watchdog group.

But it was Georgia where problems compounded. At least four polling places in Gwinnett County, a populous suburb of the metro Atlanta area, reported technical issues, and at least one polling place resorted to paper ballots due to the problems.

Harri Hursti, a New York-based computer scientist who was observing the voting in Gwinnett County, said voters had to wait 4 ½ hours to vote at one polling place because the electronic poll books were not working.

“Some voters were leaving without voting and said they’d try later,” he said. “By Georgia law, if the machines don’t work, you have to give paper ballots out.”

However, he said poll workers failed to explain that the ballots were real, and so many voters refused them, believing they were provisional ballots that might not be counted.

Voting integrity and voting rights issues were at the forefront in the state, where Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp was in a tight race with Democrat Stacey Abrams, who seeks to become the nation’s first black female governor.

Five Georgia voters filed a federal lawsuit against Kemp seeking to bar him from being involved in the counting of votes, the certification of results, or any runoff or recount procedures that would normally be exercised by his office or that of the Board of Elections, on which he also sits.

Kemp stirred up voters on Sunday when he blamed Democrats for a major vulnerability that was discovered in the state’s online voter registration system.

WhoWhatWhy.org, a new online news site, was alerted to the problem by a citizen who sought to check his voter registration information and discovered that the state web site revealed computer code that a malicious actor easily could use to change personal information about voters, perhaps in large numbers.

The discovery, and an innocent exchange of emails over the weekend by state Democratic Party officials concerned about it, led Kemp to call for a criminal investigation of the Democrats.

Voting machines failed in at least nine counties in South Carolina, and civil rights groups sent a late afternoon letter calling on state Elections Director Marci Andino to take “remedial action” to compensate for the problems.

“Voters are leaving polling places without voting as the lines are too long,” wrote Susan Dunn, legal director of the South Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and Brett Bursey, executive director of the South Carolina Progressive Network.

They said at one Charleston polling location, no machines were working and voters were told no paper ballots were available. In Bamberg County, paper ballots were distributed when the machines failed, but voters were told they would be treated as provisional ballots, with voters facing a higher burden for ensuring their votes would be counted.

South Carolina is among five states that use electronic voting machines with no paper backups that could be used to audit the accuracy of the vote counts.

In a bit of positive news, federal authorities said they saw no uptick in probing of election networks by malicious hackers, either at home or abroad, and were working closely with social media giants to take down suspicious accounts.

Facebook late Monday said it had received a tip from federal law enforcement and responded by taking down 85 Instagram accounts and 30 Facebook accounts. The Instagram accounts were mostly in English, while the Facebook accounts were in French or Russian, the company said.

The company said the concern was that the accounts were linked in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and was investigating them in greater detail.

“Once we know more — including whether these accounts are linked to the Russia-based Internet Research Agency or other foreign entities — we will update this post,” the company said.

Federal prosecutors in February handed down indictments against 13 Russians, many of whom worked at the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm,” or Russian information warfare operation designed to spread distrust among American voters about the democratic system itself.

Still, anti-democratic voices were common on Twitter throughout Election Day, some telling the citizenry to vote Wednesday, not Tuesday, in a tactic of offering blatant false information.

“A reminder for all my liberal friends, don’t forget to vote tomorrow Wednesday November 7th!” said one tweet.

Another tweet came from an account opened only days ago and directed at Texans, who were deciding Tuesday whether to re-elect Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, or turn toward Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat.

“Please go vote BETO TOMORROW, Wed Nov 7th,” said the account registered under the name @KentGreenJr.

In a joint statement released Monday night, the heads of the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the departments of Homeland Security and Justice said they had not detected any successful efforts to disrupt the elections but that the citizenry should be on guard.

“Americans should be aware that foreign actors—and Russia in particular—continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord,” the statement said.

Recorded Future, a cybersecurity firm with headquarters in Somerville, Massachusetts, said it had detected that Russian influence operations had shifted strategy before the U.S. midterm elections, moving away from “verifiably false information (or “fake news”) to hyperpartisan perspectives.”

“We have seen tactics shift over the past two weeks to appear more real and legitimate,” Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic threat development at the company, wrote in a note.

Moriuchi said postings generated through Russian campaigns were now focused on “extremely biased or opinionated content.”

She said Russian “trolls,” or provocateurs, were likely stoking sentiments on both ends of the U.S. political spectrum “but that the network we currently have identified is targeting the far right of American political discourse.”

Greg Gordon contributed.

Tim Johnson, 202 383-6028, @timjohnson4