E-voting: Laws, lingo and technologies

Do you know your DREs from your VVPATs?


Accessible voter-verified paper audit trails, sometimes called the Mercuri method after researcher and e-voting expert Rebecca Mercuri, who first mapped the system. Ballot-marking device

Ballot-marking devices are essentially electronic pencils. Such a device simply produces a printed paper ballot based on voter inputs; no electronic record is kept. Designed to serve voters with disabilities, ballot-marking devices usually offer a variety of inputs: touch screens, keyboards, foot paddles and even sip-and-puff functionality. Audio is usually provided for the vision-impaired.


Ballot definition file; the code that tells the machine how to interpret whatever the voter's doing out there. Some researchers believe that BDFs could be a major weakness in e-voting systems, since there's no comprehensive system for checking the code or the machines' behaviors.

Ballot-marking device (see above).

Direct-recording electronic; a computer-based voting machine. When unmodified by the term VVPAT (see below), refers to an e-voting machine that produces no paper trail. Much e-voting controversy centers on DREs, though other types of systems that tabulate votes electronically (DREs with VVPAT, optical scan machines) are also prone to trouble.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, created by HAVA (see below). The federal body has taken over independent testing of e-voting machines from the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED). EAC has not yet released e-voting reliability guidelines, and HAVA guarantees that they would be only that -- guidelines, nothing binding.

Election Incident Reporting System (EIRS)
A production of the Verified Voting Foundation, the Web-based EIRS allows volunteers and users to log reports of election problems. The site and hotline logged 175,000 calls and 42,841 incidents concerning the 2004 election. The system is expected to be active again this year.

E-voting (electronic voting)
Convincing proof of Voltaire's observation that the perfect is the enemy of the good. As the authors of the Brennan Center's "The Machinery of Democracy: Voting System Security, Accessibility, Usability and Cost" study put it:

"…all of the most commonly purchased electronic voting machines -- DREs, DREs with VVPT and PCOS -- have significant security and reliability vulnerabilities, which pose a real danger to the integrity of national, state and local elections."

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 was the catalyst for most of the changes to U.S. voting in the past five years. HAVA was enacted partly in response to the chaos of the 2000 presidential elections. It requires, among other things, state (rather than city or county) management of elections and voter-registration rolls, computerization of many aspects of the registration process and the replacement of punch-card and lever machines.

Lever-based systems were used throughout the country for decades; the Nov. 7 elections are almost sure to be their last hurrah. Despite a certain amount of nostalgia for the satisfyingly tactile "thunk" of voting on those hulking piles of knobs and metal, the machines are a HAVA nightmare -- prone to breakdown and incapable of producing a paper trail. And they can in fact be hacked (by jamming a pencil lead in the gears to block registration of votes on certain levers) -- though not, as e-voting critics point out, on anything approaching the economy of scale potentially achievable with e-voting hacks.

The National Association of State Election Directors. Formerly responsible for ITA (independent testing authority) examination of e-voting machines, a responsibility now handled by the EAC (see above).

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, often called the motor/voter law because it promoted increasing voter-registration opportunities by (among other things) allowing voters to register at the same time they received or renewed their drivers' licenses. A popular law, credited with expanding the voter pool.

Optical scan
Optical scan machines take in paper ballots, analyze the marks on them and record the results electronically. Optical-scan systems have the advantage for verifiability-minded folk of requiring paper and, thus, a potentially auditable paper trail. They're also less expensive than DRE units. However, experiments undertaken by researcher Harri Hursti indicate that optical scan units may be vulnerable to hacker attacks if the hacker was able to get a half-hour's unmonitored access to the machines. In addition, optical-scan systems are as vulnerable as any other computer system to software-based attacks, according to Brennan Center experts.

An optical-scan voting system (see above). Stands for precinct-counted optical scan, which differs from centrally based scan systems.

Statewide voter-registration system, one of the requirements of HAVA. Only North Dakota is exempted from having an SVRS. North Dakota has no voter registration at all, because that state is sparsely populated enough to know when anyone is voting where they shouldn't be. (Seriously, this is their system.)

Vote by mail
A system gaining popularity in the western U.S. Oregon is switching to an all-mail system this year, and Washington state is gaining fast. (Maryland's governor has called for mass use of absentee ballots in this year's November elections due to rampant problems with the state's current DRE system, but that's not so much a vote-by-mail system as a vote-by-mail kludge.) Ballots are sent to a processing center where they're hand-counted or fed into an optical scanner.

Vote by phone
An unusual system offered by just one vendor, Louisville, Ky.-based IVS LLC. Don't whip our your mobile handset just yet; the system requires that voters be present in a polling place, from which the calls originate.

Voter access cards
The smart cards used by various systems to begin and (in some cases) record an e-voting session. The cards are widely regarded as a potential security hole, easy to lose, damage or possibly forge.

Voter-verifiable paper audit trail; a feature of some DRE machines that allows them to print a record of the voter's choices that can be visually scanned for accuracy. VVPAT capability is held by most e-voting watchdog to be a security improvement over paperless DRE machines, but most observers note that a paper trail is fairly useless unless rules exist for auditing the results.

  See more about e-voting:

  •  E-voting state by state: What you need to know
  •  Major players: the vendors
  •  Review: Hacking Democracy

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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