We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have fairly simple paper ballot voting machines (rather than electronic touch-screen voting machines, see, e.g. Ed Felten’s comprehensive critiques of electronic voting). When I voted this morning, however, the machines were not feeding the ballots. Instead, the poll workers were piling the ballots up on top of the machines, apparently to be fed into the machines when they figured out how to get them to work. When I left (about 90 minutes after the polls opened), they had gotten to the point of triple-checking whether the machine was plugged in.
I felt a bit uneasy leaving my secret ballot in a big open pile. It was somewhat reassuring that a police officer seemed to be in charge of watching the ballots, but I still will always have a slight reservation as to whether or not my vote was actually counted.
Don’t they get to work early to test the machines? Perhaps do a few dry runs, kick the tires, etc.? Other industries seem to have figured out most of these problems a long time ago — for example, I can’t remember a single instance in my entire life of encountering a paper jam (cash or receipt) with an ATM. (I’m sure it does happen, just rarely enough that it’s never effected me). If a system is mission critical, it should be possible to get the failure rate down to something more acceptable.