RealTime IT News

Rage Against the Voting Machines

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After Congress appropriated nearly $4 billion to help states buy electronic voting machines, technology was supposed to make things better, not confuse the issue further.

Chaos, confusion, chads and courts dominated the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. So Congress, reasoning public confidence in the voting system was at stake, ponied up the money and turned to the private sector for solutions. E-voting was born.

Dawn of a New Day?

On Tuesday, about 30 percent of all voters will cast their votes electronically, using a non-networked system consisting of hardware and software that interacts through Flash technology to tabulate votes. The number of voters predicted to cast e-ballots is the second largest percentage behind optical scan ballots, which is at 32 percent. About 22 percent of voters will use punch card and lever technology.

Voting technology, of course, is nothing new. From lever machines to punch cards to scanning devices, election officials have continually strived to improve the accuracy and security of the voting system. Each new technological advance came with criticism but was eventually accepted by the public.

E-voting, though, has sparked criticism and controversy of a different order, and most of it has come from the technology community, pitting security experts against e-voting machine vendors like Diebold and Sequoia Systems.

"This is the first time in my lifetime that we have developed a voting system that is complicated, has known security flaws and has no ability to do auditing or recounting," said Cindy Cohen of the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Nonsense, counter the vendors.

"I would say, to a certain extent, we have a chorus of critics sensationalizing an issue that the facts simply do not support," said Bob Cohen, a senior vice president at the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), the principal trade group of the e-voting vendors. "It's amazing to us that reasonable people can look at 2000 and not view moving forward with technology is somehow not the thing to do."

John Bear, a Diebold spokesman, claims there are no facts to support the critics. "It's good to have a national dialogue on any issue, but it's important not to tip over the balance of public confidence [in the voting system]."

A Trail of Paper

E-voting was first rolled out in the 2002 elections. By and large, it went well, but anecdotal evidence suggests there were problems with faulty machines. But no election is perfect. Ballot boxes get stuffed. People vote for both candidates on a ballot. And even the dead have been known to cast ballots.

The e-voting controversy exploded shortly after the 2002 elections when a team of university researchers uncovered vulnerabilities in Ohio-based Diebold's e-voting computer code. The proprietary code, which included modifications made through 2002, was posted anonymously to a public Web site. Diebold says the problem has been fixed.

Since the 2000 elections, the EFF's Cohen, along with voting rights groups around the country, have been attempting to perform "triage" on the legislation. Their answer is paper, the same voting medium e-voting is supposed to eliminate.

A primary problem with e-voting, Cohen said, is that it leaves no paper trail in case a recount is needed. At the end of an e-voting day, the machines print out a vote tally. There are no individual ballots -- mangled or with hanging chads -- to count. "Machines are binary. It's not going to tell you anything about what the voter intended to do," she said.

Lawsuits throughout the country have attempted to force states to produce a paper trail for e-voting machines. Diebold and the other vendors say their machines come with printers, but the states have not requested the machines be programmed to produce a paper trail.

"Frankly, the election officials don't want to do that," Cohen said. "The last thing they want is an opportunity for voters to demonstrate a lack of confidence in the technology the election officials have chosen."

The ITAA's Cohen said paper "represents its own issues, as we saw in Florida in 2000," but added if voters really want a paper trail, election officials will likely respond by requiring one in 2006.

Diebold's Bear contends a paper trail simply is not necessary. "What [EFF and other critics are] calling for is to create a non-existent product for a problem that doesn't exist," he said.

The voting rights groups' lawsuits did produce some tangible results for the big day next week. In Nevada, a paper trail will be required and in California voters will be a given a paper ballot if they don't want to use an e-voting machine. In all other states, including key battleground states like Ohio and Florida, there will be no paper trails.

"You can point a lot of fingers: election officials made bad decisions, the vendors sold snake oil and Congress could have done a better job of setting standards," Cohen said. "You can look in a lot of places, but I'm not sure where that gets you. Here we are."

Bear and Cohen insist e-voting will go well and that the criticism has been overblown.

"The reality is that the systems work well. I'm sure the confidence lost [by voters to the criticism] will be regained. I can't see how it won't," Cohen said.

"Those most familiar with the machines, voters and election officials, are the biggest supporters of e-voting," Bear claimed.

But could e-voting become the hanging chads of 2004? Ironically, the very flaws pointed to by the critics would most likely hurt a legal challenge.

"The thing that's going to be hard about e-voting is that's there is very little to fight over," Cohen said. "Once the election is over, the machine has registered only what the machine has registered. You don't have any data."