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As e-voting grows, calls for paper trail delay cards' demise

By Brian C. Mooney, Globe Staff  |  June 21, 2004

Florida's infamous hanging chads and butterfly ballots in the 2000 presidential election prompted a land rush to electronic voting across the country. But five months before the 2004 election, a chorus of computer scientists and activists see potential for electoral meltdown in the growing trend toward touch-screen technology.

Despite reports of malfunctions in jurisdictions around the country, the use of ''direct recording electronic" voting machines has been growing dramatically. In this year's presidential election, 50 million registered voters, 29 percent of the total, will be able to cast their ballots on ATM-like machines, according to Election Data Services, a consulting firm that has tabulated election methods since 1980. That's about 2 times the number who voted on digital touch screens in 2000.

In recent weeks, independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader and former Democratic candidate Howard Dean have joined those calling for more security, particularly paper-trail backup systems. Under pressure from many of its members, the League of Women Voters abruptly reversed itself this month, abandoning its support for paperless e-voting, advocating instead ''secure, accurate, recountable, and accessible" systems.

A number of election officials and equipment manufacturers say these critics are alarmists, unschooled in the way elections are conducted in the real world.

''There are valid concerns on all sides," said Dan Seligson, editor of electionline.org, a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy group that tracks election reform efforts. ''Whether democracy is truly threatened by paperless voting machines, I'm not sure that's the case. Nor am I sure it's the case that these are 100 percent reliable. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle."

''Unfortunately, both sides of the issue are talking past each other at this point and not working together to seek a common solution," said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services.

Meanwhile, the debate over e-voting rages in Congress, state capitals, and county offices across the country, and next week moves to Houston, where two federal panels will discuss what minimum federal standards should be established for new technologies. The panels will make recommendations to the US Election Assistance Commission.

Created by Congress two years after the 2000 election debacle, the EAC is supposed to help administer federal elections and distribute $3.9 billion to the states for upgrades in election procedures. Some of the funds are to replace punch-card systems, discredited four years ago during the tortuous Florida recount.

There is no chance the issue will be resolved before the Nov. 2 election, and some states are sticking with punch cards until 2006, when new electronic-voting standards that include some form of paper record are supposed to be in place. That will result in continued use of punch cards in precincts that are home to about 19 percent of registered voters this fall, Election Data Services projects, down from about 31 percent four years ago.  

 Officials in New England are observers at this point. Except for an electronic-voting pilot project in several Connecticut communities, no New England state uses either touch-screen or punch-card voting systems.

Proponents of e-voting point out that the technology is easy to use, which critics concede. The machines can be programmed to display ballots in numerous languages with adjustable font sizes for the visually impaired. People with disabilities, particularly blind voters, using audio prompts from a headset, can vote without assistance, unlike with other technologies that require paper.

On the minus side, many systems leave at best a sketchy paper record for recount purposes, and a number of studies by computer scientists have identified what they consider potential security flaws that could leave the results subject to tampering.

''You can't build these systems the way you build a hand-held computer game for kids. This has implications of national security," said Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University who last year co-wrote a 24-page critique of 49,000 lines of leaked code used by Diebold Election Systems, a subsidiary of Ohio-based ATM manufacturer Diebold Inc.

Diebold's code ''was done by amateurs," Rubin said. ''We found a lot of software flaws, incorrect use of cryptography, and bad software engineering . . . I'm not saying that they would do it, but a vendor is in a position to dictate what the outcome of an election could be."

Rubin said the government should become more involved not only in setting the standards but also in testing the technology, a process now done by testing companies, paid by manufacturers, to certify the accuracy of the makers' equipment.

Of the suggestion that someone could hijack an election, David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold, said: ''There has never been a genuine or factual issue of that with touch-screen voting . . . I can't discount the possibility of a conspiracy, but I can tell you it's never happened."

''Mr. Rubin tested an incomplete and outdated code in less than a real-world environment," Bear said.

Nearly all US manufacturers maintain computer codes as proprietary information. Some activists want election-machine codes to be open source, available to public scrutiny, as they are in voting machines in Australia. The possible problems suggested by Rubin, Bear said, ''are either not applicable or so unlikely to occur as to be insignificant."

Rubin was dismissive of the industry assertion that there has never been a documented instance of hacking or tampering.

''That's like saying I've been driving without my seat belt my entire life and have never had an accident, so it must be a safe way to drive," Rubin retorted.

Critics of e-voting point to problems some technological, some resulting from unprepared local officials in races in at least 10 states nationwide in the past two years: Machines malfunctioned in California and Texas, zero votes were initially counted at some precincts in a Florida election, some votes originally went untallied in New Mexico, and votes for candidates in one party were displayed as votes for a candidate of the opposite party. The errors were discovered, later corrected, and did not affect the outcome of any elections. 

In a special legislative election last January in Florida, for instance, tallies showed that 134 voters did not cast a vote for any candidate, even though no other contests were on the ballot. The victory margin was a mere 12 votes. During the mandatory recount, the only votes that could be reexamined were five paper absentee ballots.

Jill Friedman-Wilson, spokeswoman for Election Systems & Software of Omaha, which manufactured the e-voting machines, said the company is ''extremely confident in the performance of our equipment," which include an audit log and the capacity to print images of every ballot cast.

But those images would merely have shown zeros on the printouts in the Florida contest.

Nevertheless, websites have sprung up spinning conspiracy theories, some based on cozy or revolving-door relationships between a few election officials and manufacturers, or surprising results in some contests. When Georgia used e-voting in 2002, skeptics raised questions about the defeat of Senator Max Cleland and Governor Roy Barnes, both Democrats, after preelection polls seemed to indicate they were headed for victories.

Much of the debate now focuses on development of ''voter-verified audit paper trails," a paper record that a voter could view but not remove after casting an e-ballot and that could be retained for recount purposes. DeForest B. Soaries, chairman of the US Election Assistance Commission, has said the issue requires further study at the federal level.

The technology will undergo its first major test this fall in Nevada, a presidential battleground state. Secretary of State Dean Heller has expanded use of electronic voting statewide it has been used in Las Vegas's Clark County for nearly a decade and added the voter-verifiable feature to machines manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, Calif. The Nevada Gaming Commission, which regulates slot-machine technology in the state, endorsed the voting machines. The technology is awaiting final testing and certification.

Dan Tokaji, a law school professor at Ohio State University, said that he's all for secure voting systems, but that well-meaning activists holding out for a paper replica of their ballots have extended the use of flawed punch-card balloting at least in some states for this election. Ohio, expected to be another November battleground, is among those states requiring paper backup systems by 2006.

''From a civil rights perspective, this is a disaster," Tokaji said. It will continue the disenfranchisement that disproportionately affects less-educated, disabled, and non-English-proficient voters, he said.

Brace, of Election Data Services, said: ''For the last 100 years, we've had a voting system that didn't use paper and that has been accepted, lever machines." In November, about 13 percent of registered voters will be using the devices, invented in the 1890s.

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