Skip the navigation
News Analysis

E-voting backers, watchdogs hope to smooth out bumps next time

No big e-voting problems were reported last week. But the systems can still be improved.

By Grant Gross; Todd R. Weiss
November 10, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Last Tuesday's presidential election wasn't marred by widespread problems with electronic voting systems. Even e-voting watchdog groups said the election went relatively smoothly, without any reports of major technology failures.

But there were scattered problems with touch-screen and optical-scan machines. And some critics said there's still work that can be done to improve the systems.

"This is an area that really cries out for some investment in terms of technology," said Jon Greenbaum, lead lawyer at Election Protection, a nonpartisan voter-advocacy group.

Rosemary Rodriguez, who chairs the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said the EAC hopes to start certifying e-voting systems against a set of functionality, accessibility and security requirements next year.

The EAC launched its certification program in early 2007, and six e-voting vendors have applied for certification thus far. But the EAC has yet to act on any of the applications, prompting some vendors to complain that it is moving too slowly.

Rodriguez defended the process, saying that the EAC is taking its time to make sure the right parameters are being evaluated. "We're not going to apologize for being thorough," she said.

Voting machine breakdowns were reported on Tuesday in some states, including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But e-voting vendors and election officials downplayed the reports, saying the technology snafus were minor.

The problems "are not systemic," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors. "It's pretty much a normal Election Day."

Jeff Ortega, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, said the problems in that state included "minor hiccups" with the voter-verifiable paper printouts generated by touch-screen systems.

Some critics want an unattainable level of perfection, said David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, an e-voting vendor trade group.

"Every election is going to have its own individual challenges," Beirne said. But in this one, he claimed, e-voting systems performed "very well, regardless of the doomsday expectations."

Nonetheless, Brian Chess, chief scientist at security tools vendor Fortify Software Inc., called on Congress to pass "strict national standards" for e-voting systems. "We need to test ways the machines could fail and the reliability of the machines in a true election environment," he said.

Earlier tests weren't entirely reassuring. For example, Ohio residents who distrust touch-screen systems were allowed to use paper ballots last week, an option that was added after tests commissioned last year by Brunner's office found security problems in every evaluated machine. And in March, Ohio officials found that some systems were dropping votes as data was uploaded to a server.

Meanwhile, some early voters in several states claimed that e-voting systems had "flipped" their choices from the intended candidates to rival ones.

Three more states -- Maryland, Tennessee and Colorado -- plan to adopt paper backups in coming elections. But that still leaves 15 states where touch-screen machines are being used without paper verifications. Replacing or reconfiguring those systems could cost each state millions of dollars.

But it's unclear whether fixing voting systems will be a top priority for government officials in light of the current economic problems, said e-voting critic Eugene Spafford, chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery's U.S. Public Policy Committee.

"We have so many other pressing national concerns that are going to require attention first," said Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue University. "I wonder whether this will bubble up high enough to get addressed soon."

Gross writes for the IDG News Service.

This version of this article originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Read more about Government IT in Computerworld's Government IT Topic Center.

Our Commenting Policies
Blog Spotlight

This pilot fish is a contractor at a military base, working on some very cool fire-control systems for tanks. But when he spots something obviously wrong during a live-fire test, he can't get the firing-range commander's attention.