Meanwhile States Acquire Electronic Voting Machines
Precincts throughout the United States are rapidly acquiring Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting systems. Election officials are purchasing DRE systems despite the concerns expressed by a number of experts that believe there are enough flaws or security concerns in the systems to require additional scrutiny before using them as is in the next election. One of the more troublesome problems with using DREs in the upcoming election is that some of the safeguards that can help everyone know the elections were conducted cleanly and fairly will not be available. Even more troubling for computer scientists is that if there is a catastrophic failure in a voting system, there is no backup system nor method for recovering the actual votes if a system crashes or a fault in the software corrupts the votes already cast.
Last November I noted that California's Secretary of State had assembled a task force to review the advantages and drawbacks of DREs for California in order to see if there were additional requirements that the DRE manufacturers needed to provide before these systems would be considered acceptable for California. The task force recommended that a paper trail must be provided for ALL DREs used in California and the Secretary of State ruled that by the 2006 election all DREs must have a paper trail. Although this was a very welcome ruling, experts in these systems worry that too many of these systems will be in use for the 2004 elections that they could cause problems and anomalous results. A paper trail can provide a backup method of recovering (and recounting) the votes if the systems fail or are compromised.
Florida, home of the infamous paper chad, has also been struggling with DREs and whether a paper trail should be required. Florida's laws concerning voting systems require that when there is a very close vote, precincts must do a formal recount to validate the vote. A DRE that does not provide a voter verifiable paper trail cannot provide a method for precincts to do a recount (since the only copy of the vote will already wrong if there was data corruption). Since this meant that results from a precinct using DREs could be challenged under current Florida law, one legislator introduced a law to exempt DREs from this requirement. Just this week, the legislature put the kabosh on this particular idea realizing that getting rid of the recount requirement inviscerated the ability to guarantee the fairness and accuracy of the vote. However, just like with California, while the legislature has decided that a paper trail is probably important, it isn't important enough to act on it until after this November's election.
Other states also continue to wrestle with this issue. In Ohio this week, a state legislative body has recommended that the purchase and reliance on DREs be postponed until a paper trail is available.
Those that are very concerned with making sure this next election is totally fair and verifiable are taking the issue to the courts to make sure there is a consistent and fair standard throughout the United States. In California, the Secretary of State is planning to hold a hearing before the end of April in order to make a ruling about what precincts must do to protect the safety of the vote for this year's election. Californians are asked to provide feedback for this important matter:
Public comment is being accepted on the proposed standards — called Accessible Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail — through Monday. A copy can be found by linking on the "touch screen voting" box on the secretary of state's Internet home page, http://www.ss.ca.gov, or at www.ss.ca.gov/elections/touchscreen.htm.
DREs have some wonderful characteristics which will make voting much easier for many people, yet the problems they continue to have with security, reliability, recoverability and verifiability threaten to derail our confidence in these systems to protect our right to vote. The question now is how can we balance our needs for simple and accessible voting that makes it easier for everyone to vote without compromising our need for safe, reliable and verifiable elections? This will be an ongoing and interesting story to watch this year.