E-voting 2006: Results a toss-up

In some places, problems were few; elsewhere, there was chaos

The jury is still out on the performance of e-voting machines throughout the country in Tuesday's midterm elections, with officials and experts offering different interpretations of electoral events.

Experts projected that as many as 39% of registered voters nationwide would cast ballots on direct record electronic (DRE) machines, mostly on touch-screen systems. This was the first year that DREs have been used on a such a widespread basis in a general election, leading to considerable concerns about the prospect for fraud, hacking or technical glitches.

But on the day after an election that saw Democrats make sizable gains in Congress, it remains unclear to what degree those fears may have been realized. There were a number of scattered reports of technical or procedural failures in Colorado, Texas, Florida, Utah and Pennsylvania. For instance, in Florida's Broward and Miami-Dade counties, voters reported difficulties getting the touch-screen systems to display the candidate they voted for, a glitch known as "vote-flipping."

One voter advocate, Holly Jacobson, was especially critical.

"Although I heard reports that there were few problems and that for the most part things went smoothly in yesterday's elections, that doesn't seem to be the experience of many voters -- particularly in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, San Diego County and elsewhere," said Jacobson, who is co-director of Voter Action, a nonprofit election watchdog organization in Berkeley, Calif. "Reading through these reports really does give a tragic view of the voting experience for many."

Even so, no one has reported a widespread meltdown or a decisive hack that would tip a major race -- at least not yet, according to voting experts. Until all results are reported and certified, and the performance of e-voting hardware is more completely assessed, it's difficult to judge how well the DRE touch-screen systems and the procedures around them actually held up.

More time is required to determine whether there were any serious security breaches, said Justin Levitt, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. "What we do know from yesterday is that the rollout of the new systems represented an enormous change for many officials and poll workers, in many cases in a last-minute rush."

While not every precinct nationwide had problems with every machine, there were issues with more devices than should be tolerated, he claimed. "Many precincts were simply unprepared to deal with servicing the number of voters arriving at the polls in the event of machine breakdowns. The user experience suffered as a result."

Despite glitches, top election officials from a number of states, including Florida, Utah and Alaska, felt today that their e-voting gear had worked well. Joseph Demma, chief of staff for Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Hebert, whose office oversees elections in Utah, acknowledged there were minor voting problems in Utah County.

However, the issues were procedural and had to do with the lack of testing and programming of the devices used to program a voter's specific ballot. The problems were soon corrected and Diebold Election Systems Inc., the vendor of the state's TSX touch-screen devices, gave more than adequate support, he said. "Overall, this was a huge success in Utah," said Demma. "We are extremely pleased."

In Florida, the spokeswoman for Secretary of State Sue Cobb downplayed reports of problems, saying problems were few, isolated and largely caused by poll worker error.

Not surprisingly, e-voting vendors were upbeat about the way their machines performed -- and argued that the public is getting used to the relatively new technology.

"Our customers did a great job," said Michelle Shafer, spokeswoman for Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. The e-voting device vendor, one of the largest, makes both optical scan and DRE machines and has some 100,000 units in the field. "As we predicted, things went smoother this November than they did in the primaries this year because the officials, poll workers and voters have had more exposure to them," she said.

Some critics saw the situation differently. It was obvious that there were breakdowns of machines all over the nation, said DRE critic and blogger Brad Friedman. Those breakdowns required the use of paper ballots -- where such ballots were available.

"Legally registered voters were turned away in states across the country, which is an absolute crime in our democracy," he said. Additionally, the use of e-voting machines may yet lead to long drawn-out disputes about who actually won a number of extremely close races in the days ahead, he said.

Avi Rubin, an elections judge in Maryland's Baltimore County and a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, noted the voting technology in his precinct worked better than it did in the September primary. One of the biggest problems then was caused by the e-polling books from Diebold, and Rubin later urged that states return to the use of paper ballots.

The e-polling handheld devices contain a database of registered voters and control voter access to the DREs. They crashed frequently in September, something that didn't happen during yesterday's balloting, Rubin noted in his Tuesday blog. "I was impressed with the performance of the e-poll books that failed so miserably in our primary," he wrote. "In our precinct, they worked flawlessly."

He noted that there was only one serious Diebold TS voting machine glitch in his precinct that might have prevented a voter's ballot from being counted. Nevertheless, he still remains opposed to DREs. "Unfortunately, I believe there are an unimaginable number of problems that could crop up with these machines where we would not know for sure if a voter's vote had been recorded, and the machines provide no way to check on such questions," he said.

He now hopes Maryland will switch completely to optical scan voting technology before the 2008 election.

Another security professional, Bruce Schneier, an author and chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., agreed that optical scan hardware is the way to go. "No voting system is perfect, but optical scan voting is the most accurate, reliable and secure system we have right now," he said. "The optical scan reader provides a quick count, and there are paper ballots available for recounts."

In Minnesota, where he lives, Schneier cast his ballot successfully on just such a device yesterday.

While some say DREs are still problematical, there may be no quick replacement for them. "Just as we shouldn't have rushed to put new [e-voting] systems in place, we should not be rushing to take them out of commission," said Levitt. "It's way too early to be making blanket statements about the merits of e-voting as a whole."

In any case, a couple of critics urged the public to continue its vigilance. This year's scrutiny by the media, which detailed the potential problems with e-voting, may have headed off any attempted hackings that could have flipped the results of a major race, said Bruce Funk, the former elections director for Emery County, Utah, and an outspoken critic of touch-screen systems.

He urged more audits of election results and said that every citizen should be given a paper ballot if they want one. "It's 2008 that worries me the most, and a clean [election] run [this year] now only lessens the public concern over the real security problem that still exists," he said.

See more Election 2006 coverage:

  •  Watchdog groups urge voters to report e-vote problems

  •  E-voting state by state: What you need to know

  •  Database glitches could turn away voters

  •  Laws, lingo and technologies

  •  Major players: the vendors

  •  Voter-targeting technologies

  •  Review: Hacking Democracy

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon