New Look at Voting Technology as Election Nears

Electronic voting
Source: Reuters

In California, cradle of the computer industry, most voters will use paper and ink to cast ballots in the U.S. election on Nov. 4.

In contrast, voters in Brazil and India press buttons in all-electronic elections that take digital voting technology to the Amazon and Himalayas.

In the United States in 2000, a ballot fiasco in Florida delayed the result of the presidential election by 35 days. But in Brazil in 2006, 130 million votes were counted in 2.5 hours.

Such are the ironies of how the world votes. But although some might see low-tech voting in the hi-tech United States, experts say Americans will find more reliable and secure voting systems in this election than in 2000 and 2004.

“We have retired the punch card ballots, which were demonstrably a bad way to vote,” said Charles Stewart, head of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and member of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

“We are just about to retire the mechanical lever machines which were also not a great way to vote. Voters using those two technologies were 40 to 50 percent of the electorate in 2000.”

Indeed, the punch card ballots developed in the 1960s were at the heart of the famous recount in Florida in 2000 that ended with Republican George W. Bush narrowly defeating Democrat Al Gore.

That nightmare sparked a rush toward electronic voting machines, but myriad technical glitches and security flaws in 2004 tarnished that technology’s reputation.

Some states and counties readjusted their electronic systems and this year counties in 24 states will vote with electronic voting or lever machines. But many dumped electronic machines and went back to paper, while investing in optical scanning devices for counting ballots.

Most voters in California, for example, will ink a paper ballot and drop it in an optical scanner, giving voters the reliability afforded by a paper trail.

“This year, paper voting has eclipsed electronic voting, and I consider that to be progress,” said Kim Alexander, president of voter advocacy group California Voter Foundation.

“Rabbits warren of systems”

California is deemed the best prepared of the 50 U.S. states for election system problems this year, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and voting watchdog groups. Some big electoral players like Texas, New Jersey and Virginia are judged ill prepared.

“For sure, there is going to be a problem somewhere, there always is in a country as vast as ours, that is as complex as ours,” said Lawrence Norden, who heads the Voting Technology Project at the Brennan Center.

The closer the race, the more scrutiny there is on the voting system, the experts note. But current polls indicate the presidential race may not be a cliffhanger as Democrat Barack Obama shows a widening lead over Republican John McCain.

One of the big barriers to creating better voting systems in the United States is that states regulate how they vote, not the federal government. And with a Congress that tends to defend states’ rights, hopes for a uniform nationwide voting system are dim.

“The rules should be the same everywhere and people should know what to expect,” said Alexander. “Instead, we have this rabbits’ warren of systems and procedures out there that is infinitely complex.”

In Brazil, the federal Supreme Electoral Tribunal regulates voting nationwide, including the design of the electronic voting machine that it orders through competitive bidding. The U.S. company Diebold — widely criticized for its machines at home in recent years — has the Brazil contract.

Since it began electronic voting in 1996, Brazil has phased out the machines’ paper receipts and expects to implement digital and face recognition of voters in five to 10 years. The goal is to reduce human intervention to a minimum.

“We had a slow and fraudulent electoral process that was totally untrustworthy and that was the main motivation for our big investment in this area,” said Giuseppe Janino, head of technology at Brazil’s Electoral Tribunal.

Brazil lends its machines and know-how to other countries, but doesn’t plan to export its product “Made for Brazil.” The United States, Janino said, has not sought Brazil’s help.

“There are countries that use paper and people trust the process, even if it is manual and slow,” Janino said.

But MIT’s Stewart said he expects more development in electronic voting in the United States despite the setbacks.

“I still think there is, at least in theory, a role for electronic voting machines in places that have especially complicated electoral environments,” said Stewart.

“What is unfortunate is that we have not set up a mechanism to assure broad elements of the public that those electronic machines are honest machines.”

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