Time for feds to step in on e-voting

If there's a question whether votes were counted properly but voting machines don't have a voter-verified paper trail, how can there be a meaningful recount? If someone suspects that vote-counting software has malfunctioned, how can we ensure results were accurate without an independent backup?

With national Congressional elections less than three months away, this is not a theoretical question.

Millions of voters "cannot check to be sure their votes were recorded as intended, and election officials cannot conduct legitimate recounts or audits to prove that the machines are counting the votes correctly," according to a letter from Rep. Rush Holt signed by 17 others members of Congress. Without hard-copy backups, they note, we're all "at the mercy of the counting software, which may or may not function correctly."

Incredibly, federal law still doesn't require that touch-screen electronic voting systems provide a paper printout for voters to check and deposit in a secure container, in case a recount is needed. While bills have been filed to that effect, they've never passed.

Instead, we're all supposed to assume that these machines will work flawlessly, without unintended any errors or successful malicious tampering.


Financial and commercial networks have experienced a parade of hacks, identity thefts and random glitches, and those have security that's likely higher than temporary voting systems run by local officials with varying degree of technology expertise. Just this weekend I discovered a bank error when my investment account became mysteriously unlinked from my checking account. How did I find out? My paper statement.

It would take a wild-eyed optimist to believe analogous things can't happen on a voting network.

And if you are optimistic enough to assume IT systems will always work as expected, you have no business setting public policy that involves technology.

When you go to an ATM, you can get a paper receipt. When you fill up your tank and pay by credit or debit card, you can get a paper receipt. For something far more precious to many than a $30 fill-up, why can't they be sure their votes were properly recorded?

Holt and 17 of his Congressional colleagues have called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to wield Justice Department authority to "ensure a voter-verified paper ballot for all votes cast," as well as conduct manual audits of random ballot samples to check electronic vote counts and ensure accuracy in areas where such audits aren't already planned.

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Six states have electronic systems statewide where vote tallies can't be independently verified, the letter notes: Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey and South Carolina. Eleven others will be using such systems in some areas: Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

With a bitterly partisan political environment and control of the House of Representatives potentially at stake, this is no time to assume technology will operate flawlessly from sea to shining sea. Let's hope the Justice Department will indeed head off potential problems this fall and take steps to ensure the reliability of our election results.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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