And we thought it was because the machines were rigged

  Apostrophes in Names Stir Lot o’ Trouble
Associated Press (02/21/08) Odriscoll, Sean

Despite their sophistication, computers are still often confused when an apostrophe appears in a name, which can cause problems for users when they to vote, schedule appointments, rent a car, book a flight, or take a college exam. In addition to names with apostrophes, names with hyphens and names with surnames such as “van” can also cause problems.

Permission Data’s Michael Rais says the problem is sloppy programming. “It’s standard shortsightedness,” he says. “Most programs set a rule for first name and last name. They don’t think of foreign-sounding names.” Rais says problems normally arise in two ways. First, online forms often have a filter that searches for unfamiliar terms that might be a mistake or a joke and might automatically block a last name with an apostrophe, hyphen, or space.

Second, if the computer system is sophisticated enough to accept unusual last names, the names must be stored in the database, where a hyphen or apostrophe can be mistaken for a piece of computer code, corrupting the system.

During the 2004 Michigan caucus, thousands of voters with names such as O’Connor, Al-Hussein, and Van Kemp did not have their votes counted. The technical problem is difficult to correct because computer systems have numerous ways of recognizing names. “It depends on the form filters and it depends on the database program,” Rais says.

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