With one caucus and a primary behind us, we think we know what wildcards could influence the 2008 elections: the unaffiliated, undecideds and under-30s. Yet, there is another unknown: the voting machines.

It’s true that North Carolina has made strides toward preserving the integrity of our vote. After a snafu in Carteret County where 4,400 votes disappeared from a touch-screen machine during a 2004 contest, state legislators passed a law requiring vendors to provide more information about the machines’ computer code and its programmers.

Nonetheless, computerized voting machines are fallible, even those that leave a paper trail. One Election Day, the Triangle primarily uses Optical Scan M-100s , manufactured by Election Systems and Software. You fill in an oval beside your chosen candidate and feed the sheet into a machine at the polling place. Yet, even the M-100s, which contain a paper record of votes cast, have experienced problems accurately tabulating the vote.

In April 2006, seven M-100s failed a user acceptance test at the Wake County Board of Elections; three flunked a retest. The culprit turned out to be a batch of faulty data storage cards, but one replacement card didn’t work in at least two machines that otherwise had functioned normally.

Arkansas-based Project Vote reported that ES&S equipment has occasionally not counted ballots with light markings, double-counted votes if data cartridges are uploaded multiple times, and once the memory was full, stopped recording votes or began counting backward.

Technology Web site Ars Technica (arstechnica.com) notes that in an analysis of Ohio’s voting machines, academic and private-sector researchers reported several vulnerabilities in the M-100s: “Flipping the write-protect switch on the device’s CF card to ‘On’ could result in a precinct-wide undercount that’s extremely hard to detect.” That switch is easy to flip accidentallyor maliciously. The paper tape reports and internal counts would be correct, but the scanned votes wouldn’t be tallied on the memory card that is delivered to the Board of Elections.

The stakes are high, especially in a year when voter turnout will likely be high and the states’ and nation’s most powerful offices are in play.

Short of returning to paper ballots, which can also be “lost,” damaged or otherwise corrupted, the main recourse for voters is to be vigilant about monitoring elections. This includes ensuring eligible people aren’t denied the right to vote, and that once in the ballot box, their votes are counted.

Fill in your ovals, ask for additional verification if the vote totals seem hinkyand hope for the best.

Download a list of N.C.’s 2006 general election voting equipment (PDF, 10.3 KB)