By Allyson Dickman
Published October 29th 2008 in Capital News Service
WASHINGTON — The Maryland State Board of Elections' Web site crashed Tuesday evening, the night applications for absentee ballots were due and just six days before the Nov. 4 election.
When visitors tried to access the site, an error message popped up saying there was a server error. Deputy Administrator Ross Goldstein estimated the site was down for about two hours. A state archives technician confirmed his estimate.
Capital News Service called at approximately 5:45 p.m., the office was
closed and employees had no idea the site was down. It was still down
an hour later. The webmaster had already left for the day.
"No one knew here," said Thomas Queen, a member of the information technology staff. "We've never had it go down before, as far as I've ever known."
The crash was caused by a hardware problem and is the first major problem since the board acquired the site, Goldstein said. The Web site is hosted at the state archives, where information technology workers switched the site to an alternate server Tuesday night.
The evening the site went down was the deadline for absentee voters to submit an application for a ballot. While the site was down, absentee voters were unable to get the application, which had to be submitted in person by 4:30 p.m., or by fax by midnight.
"They could be faxed in before midnight," Goldstein said. "So there was still time after (the site went down) to fax it in. So I think there was minimal disruption. The issue will be resolved."
Most of the local boards of elections' Web sites also had the application available, said Goldstein. The board received no complaints from the public while the system was down, he added.
The hardware problem is still being worked out and a Dell computer technician was called to fix the kinks. Until then, the Web site has been switched over to the board's backup server.
"It had nothing to do with the number of hits," said Goldstein, who emphasized the site will not have a problem if many people are on all at once.
Throughout this election cycle, Maryland State Board of Elections has had a robust number of visitors on its Web site.
"Bad timing," said Kevin Zeese executive director of TrueVoteMD, a grass-roots organization dedicated to voting integrity. "It's a shame the Board of Elections can't extend the deadline of the application by even one day."
The Board of Elections provides substantial election information for voters who rely on the Internet, said Ryan O'Donnell of the government reform organization, Common Cause Maryland.
"This is one of the risks," he said. "This crash, poll book crashes, Web site crashes, it comes with the territory."
Problems with election technology, from Web site failures to electronic ballots, may cause voters to become disenchanted with the voting process. Absentee voters who were unable to go on to the site and print an application at the time of the crash, may not have checked back to see if the site was back up.
"Anytime a Web site goes down right on the eve of a deadline or on the deadline, it could certainly cause at least confusion for voters if not discourage them from voting all together," said Adam Fogel, the right to vote director at Fair Vote Maryland, an organization dedicated to transforming elections.
"If there's any way for the Board of Elections to be more flexible with their deadlines, that may help voters with their problems," Fogel said.
The crash is just another example that we've come to rely too heavily on high technology efforts we don't truly understand, Zeese said. He predicted courts will be asked to extend voting on Nov. 4 because of high turnout and problems with electronic voting machines.
"Usually the Board of Elections is good at hiding any problems and not letting anyone know about it," Zeese said. "They try to cover these things up and say everything's fine when really it's the opposite. People need to realize how technically challenged the voting administration is."