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Q&A: For e-voting, Holt looks to undo HAVA's havoc

The race is on to make every vote auditable in time for the November elections

By Deborah Radcliff
February 4, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) has forced upon the electorate immature, insecure e-voting systems that undermine confidence in the elections process, says U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ). The good news, he says, is that untangling the problem may not be out of reach -- even before the November general election -- if we move quickly.

Electronic voting systems purchased and pressed into service in the wake of HAVA have failed significant tests. Several states have examined the machines they had previously selected and found them seriously lacking. In fact, the California Secretary of State last year de-certified the Diebold Inc., Hart InterCivic Inc. and Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. direct recording electronic (DRE) systems the state had previously committed to after machines from all those companies failed in testing. And in December, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner released the EVEREST study, which reported that leading systems have failed basic firewall, antivirus, password and system-configuration safety checks -- making them vulnerable to the most basic attack methods.

Security aside, the biggest problem with e-voting systems is that there is no way to attest to the validity of a voter record, says Holt, who holds a B.A. in physics and a 1979 patent for a type of density gradient. For the past six years, Holt has championed the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (H.R. 811), which would require voter-verifiable paper ballots and random, mandatory audits of votes cast over e-voting systems in all counties across all states.

H.R. 811 passed the House Administration Committee in May and is awaiting a full House vote. In the meantime, there are the 2008 elections to attend to, so in January, Holt announced the Emergency Assistance for Secure Electronic Elections Act of 2008. That bill would provide $500 million to reimburse states for costs incurred in adding a paper-based system for verification and audit.

According to Verified Voting, 22 states have not yet implemented voter-verified paper records (VVPR) for every vote. VVPRs allow individual voters to examine the accuracy of the ballots they've just marked before each ballot is tallied.

Can political efforts like Holt's and grass-roots efforts such as those by Verified Voting reach the these 22 states in time? We asked Holt to speak briefly on the current situation.

E-voting is second on your list of issues. Why is this particular issue so important to you personally? I attribute it to the scientist part of me. Scientists and engineers would look all look at these systems and say, "You need a paper receipt that verifies the vote." A politician, on the other hand, is slow to recognize that software can't verify itself. The politician in me saw that [the lack of ability to verify votes] was a critical flaw in our voting systems, which could undermine confidence in the entire voting process.

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