Paperless e-voting concerns overblown, say officials

Some argue that paperless systems have been used in many previous elections without incident

Officials in some states that rely solely on paperless electronic voting systems today downplayed concerns raised by e-voting watchdogs about their reliability and auditability.

One in four voters in next week's federal and state elections are expected to use direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems that offer no verifiable paper records of their vote.

Such systems are used statewide in Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey and South Carolina. In five other states -- Indiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia -- a vast majority of voters will use paperless DREs.

Election watchdogs have long expressed concerns about the use of such systems due to what they call the inability to verify the accuracy of electronic tallies. Voter-marked paper ballots and electronic systems that generate paper copies of votes, they argue, provide for easy auditing of election tallies.

Watchdog groups have also expressed concern about the susceptibility of electronic voting systems to software errors and malicious tampering.

Jacques Berry, spokesman for Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne today brushed aside such concerns. For Tuesday's election, the state will use close to 10,000 DREs, none of which will generate a paper record.

The state has found no problems in earlier elections, and believes that there's little reason to doubt the integrity or reliability of the system, Berry said.

Each of the DRE's maintains an auditable paper trail of voters and ballots that use the machine, but there is no copy of marked ballots, he said. "We believe that is as it should be. Voter privacy is very important and we don't want to be able to go back and check" how an individual voted, he said.

"We have never had an instance of proven vote switching or anything of that sort," he added. Most problems are due to human error -- such as pressing the wrong button, he said.

All systems have seals designed to prevent tampering so it is relatively easy to detect misuse, he said. The likelihood of anyone tampering with an electronic voting system during an election is remote, he said.

Concerns about hacking are "completely irrational," he said. "I don't disagree that it is possible to hack any computer control device. But the people who claim they are able to hack into and compromise an electronic voting machine in an actual election are being ridiculous."

Chris Whitmire, public information officer for the South Carolina State Election Commission expressed similar sentiments.

The state has been using DRE systems since 2004, and millions of votes have been cast without problems, he said. "Our experience has been that the voting system has performed accurately and reliably every single time," he added.

The election commission's confidence in the system is reflected by voters in the state, Whitmire said. A statewide election conducted in 2006 showed 92% of South Carolinians believed the election was "honest, fair and accurate," Whitmire said.

According to Whitmire, each county conducts logic and accuracy tests on each machine before elections to ensure accuracy and reliability. "We take concerns about the validity of the voting system seriously, and when questions arise, we take immediate steps to address them," he said.

A total of 32 states and the District of Columbia have laws that mandate the use of voting systems with verifiable paper records. Election officials in six other states are doing so voluntarily.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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