Sunday :: Apr 20, 2003

Electronic Voting-Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?


by Steve

After a 2000 election fiasco in Florida where thousands of cast ballots were not counted and GOP Capitol Hill staffers masquerading as incensed locals intimidated poll workers conducting recounts, members of both parties convinced us that the problem was technology, not criminal behavior and nonsensical ballots. As a result, the House and Senate passed and President Bush signed into law the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which was sold as a way to prevent uncounted ballots in the future by having the federal government fund local conversion to electronic counting and balloting machines.

But is this a case of the cure being worse than the disease? And was technology used as a cover to insert a less-accountable method of ballot counting that can lead to greater and harder to detect mischief in the conduct of our elections? The answer to both questions is a possible “Yes.”

As a result of the passage of HAVA last year, at least eight states are currently using or ready to procure electronic touch-screen voting equipment or paper ballot counting electronic machinery with the federal funding provided by HAVA. These include Ohio, Indiana, Utah, Montana, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. In several of these states technical problems and vote dumping have already occurred. Several more will be moving in this direction by next year’s presidential election. And this technology is being pushed by four or five major players, including Diebold Election Systems, Microvote General Corporation, Election Systems and Software Inc., and Sequoia. Two of these companies are large campaign contributors to the GOP.

Yet with this move, there are many danger signs already flashing from the use of such machines where they already are in use. Also in question is whether seniors and others who are confused by poorly-designed paper ballots or scared by computer technology will vote with such systems.

First, as bad as Florida was, at least there were supposed to be paper ballots that could have been counted to prove that someone voted, and whom they voted for. We can engage in any “Cook County” or “Gore ballots floating in the Everglades” stories all we want. But at least with the paper ballot system, there is truly supposed to be a tangible “one ballot, one vote” connection. Yet with the touch screen technology being touted and installed in many jurisdictions over recent years, that connection no longer exists. In many of the touch-screen systems being installed by Diebold Voting Systems and Electronic Systems and Software Inc (ES&S) around the country, paper receipts for the voter to confirm their votes are not possible unless the locality can pay a significant additional cost. Ironically, both Diebold and ES&S are heavy campaign contributors to the GOP.

Professor David L. Dill of Stanford University has been the most outspoken critic over this defect in electronic voting, and in his travels around the country, he advises any locality considering such technology to only procure from vendors who can provide instant receipts for voters to verify the accuracy of their votes.

Dill wants a traditional, verifiable paper trail that judges can check against the electronic ballot tally. He operates a Web site dedicated to raising awareness of possible electronic voting error or fraud, and more than 100 university-affiliated scientists and technologists have publicly endorsed his demand for election safeguards.

"Computer scientists, as well as voters, are upset by paper-less direct recording electronic voting systems, because we know that even a beginning programmer can write code that displays votes one way on a screen, records them another way and tallies them yet another way," Dill said. "This can happen for a variety of reasons, including software and hardware errors, or ‘hacks’ installed into the voting machines." He is not opposed to touch-screen systems, only those that don't produce a certifiable backup.

"The voter should be able to read and verify that his or her intent is represented on the paper ballot," Dill said. "Election reform is now receiving much-needed attention, but we must guard against changes that inadvertently create even worse problems. Unauditable voting equipment will erode confidence in our elections, causing further disillusionment of the voting public."

Second, electronic systems were sold as means to prevent repeats of Florida where votes went uncounted. Yet where such systems have been installed already, they have already broken down and dumped votes, as this Washington Post story outlines.

Third, there are security concerns with such technology, since source codes and voting data are vulnerable to hackers and others who may want to manipulate the results. CBS News, Salon, Rense.com, and the California Secretary of State have reported such concerns recently.

With the elimination of exit polling by the networks, and the wild swings in last-minute polling during last year’s midterms, questions are already being raised over the opportunity for manipulation of the electoral process as we eliminate more and more transparency from our electoral system.

Voters should be aware of the problems and potential for abuses that are present with electronic voting, and one of the best web sites to keep abreast of these developments is blackboxvoting.com.

If electronic voting is coming to your locality, insist on an immediate receipt for votes cast, and make sure your local leaders know of the concerns of Dr. Dill. Make sure your local League of Women Voters is aware of these issues so that this technology-driven, GOP-funded cure isn’t worse than the human-generated disease.

Steve :: 8:47 PM :: Comments (8) :: Digg It!