E-voting Technology Faces Critical Test

Challenges to results likely if systems fail during election

The widespread use of controversial electronic voting machines could lead to chaos after next month’s midterm elections if, as some critics suggest, losing candidates and their supporters move to challenge the results.

Working under a vaguely worded federal mandate, election officials nationwide have replaced lever-activated machines, punch-card systems and other outmoded voting methods with electronic equipment.

Much of the criticism to date has been aimed at touch-screen systems, or direct recording electronic devices, which critics say aren’t rigorously tested and certified and are unreliable and prone to crashing. Critics also contend that DREs are inherently vulnerable to hacking and viruses.

“The potential definitely is there for fraud,” said Bruce Funk, former elections director for Emery County, Utah.

Electronic voting technology also has many backers, including top election officials in several states who contend that the systems are secure and accurate.

In fact, Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox laid no blame on e-voting systems for her loss in the state’s primary election in June. A spokesman said that Cox, whose office oversees elections, believes that the e-voting tally was accurate.

The nationwide dash to e-voting machines was prompted by passage of the federal Help America Vote Act in October 2002. Work on the legislation began shortly after the controversial 2000 election in Florida, which required several recounts before a victor was declared in the U.S. presidential race.

HAVA took effect on Jan. 1, 2006, and backers and critics agree that its e-voting machine provision faces its first major test in the Nov. 7 election, which is expected to include many close races.

Election Data Services Inc., a consulting firm in Washington, estimates that some 66 million voters — about 38% of registered voters nationwide — will be able to use e-voting machines to cast ballots on Nov. 7. In the 2004 election, such gear was available to about 29% of voters, the company said.

Early Glitches

In smaller tests of e-voting gear, glitches occurred in several primary elections nationwide this summer and fall, including contests in Maryland and Ohio. Many factors were cited for those problems, including a lack of training for election workers.

Some experts fear that if such problems continue next month, some results will be challenged in state and federal courts, which could lead to significantly increased voter skepticism of the e-voting process.

Some results have already been challenged: A group of California residents unsuccessfully sued Mikel Haas, San Diego County’s registrar of voters, after a tight special congressional election on June 6, because some election workers stored touch-screen machines in their homes, under seal, prior to the elections.

“With 39% of voters using DREs on Nov. 7, this election, more than any in the past, will give losing candidates and the public grounds for completely doubting the outcome,” said Aviel Rubin, an electronic voting expert and a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “This has the potential to destroy the legitimacy of the entire process.”

Rubin, also an elections judge in Baltimore County, Md., said he couldn’t predict whether there will be e-voting problems next month. However, he noted, “at this point, if there’s a software problem — or, worse, if the machines have been rigged — then there’s nothing officials can do. They’ve dug themselves too deep a hole.”

In an effort to avoid such problems, the Colorado Democratic Party is urging voters to cast only absentee paper ballots because of potential problems with e-voting machines.

When he was working in Emery County, Utah, Funk brought in technical experts to hack the county’s Diebold TSX touch-screen systems in an effort to determine what security measures were needed. Funk left his county elections post following the test, which demonstrated security flaws that he felt could affect the outcome of elections.

“There is a back door to these machines,” Funk said. “There is such a myriad of things that can be done to the machines; officials won’t know where to begin to address them.”

Electronic voting advocates, meanwhile, contend that most concerns about e-voting machines have been raised by zealots who are exaggerating the problems.

Top election officials in Washington, Texas, Alaska, Georgia and Utah maintain that their states have implemented adequate safeguards to ensure the accuracy and security of touch-screen systems.

For example, Texas has implemented a process to certify that the state’s e-voting machines are “safe, secure, accurate, reliable and verifiable,” said a spokesman for Secretary of State Roger Williams. “Our office is confident that the systems being used in November’s election will meet each of these characteristics.”

Michael Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and an e-voting consultant, asserted that fears about e-voting technology are unfounded.

Following next month’s election, he predicted, “winners will be sure they won, regardless of what they said in the past about the machines. The losers will also contend that they won and that the machines stole the election from them. This doesn’t change.”

A DRE machine, properly used, can guide a user through the voting process using a rigid yes/no format, Shamos explained. The systems can assist disabled people, and they support multiple languages, he said.


For the Nov. 7
national election:

38%of the U.S. voters (66 million) will use touch screen e-voting machines.
50%(84 million) of voters will use optical scan gear.


(12 million) will be using punch card and lever machines.

Shamos did acknowledge that it generally takes three elections to adequately train poll workers in the use of e-voting machines and familiarize them with the e-voting proc¿ess. Thus, he said, mistakes in setting up machines, booting them up and printing reports are likely in the coming election. “Nothing fatal, but plenty for people to yell about,” Shamos said.

Sam Reed, secretary of state for the state of Washington and past president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said some problems are likely occurring simply because new systems are being used. “We know that at any time you convert to a new system, snafus are bound to [happen],” he said.

Sam Reed, secretary of state, Washington

Sam Reed, secretary of state, Washington

Reed also said he expects that the vendors of DRE machines “will be spread awfully thin” trying to provide training and support services throughout the country.

In next month’s election, e-voting machines will be used in five Washington counties, he said. In those counties, the machines will include a so called voter-verified paper trail, which has eased the fears of some critics, Reed said. Systems that produce paper rec¿ords of votes will also be used in Ohio and California.

The paper trail allows voters to view a printed copy of their selections that is stored in or on the machine. Election workers can match the paper votes to the records in the machine’s memory card to ensure that tabulations are accurate.

Critics of the paper-trail technology have noted that it can be difficult to load and operate and that it can compromise the anonymity of voters. Rubin also contended that hackers can rig a machine to print receipts that don’t match the actual vote and that matching paper ballots to the database is a more difficult chore than advertised.

Federal legislation proposed by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) in February to mandate that each e-voting machine provide a paper trail has gained 200 co-sponsors but has not been put to a vote in Congress.

Election Day

Tips for election workers

•  Expect that some system or process will break down.

•  Double-check all results - make sure the number of voter matches the number of ballots.

•  Create a paper record of all votes to be stored locally before transmitting results to the state.

•  Check the paper record against the official totals that are published by state or federal agencies.

•  Randomly audit machine-counted paper ballots.

Source: Douglas Jones, university of Iowa

A spokesman for Election Systems & Software Inc., an Omaha-based manufacturer of optical scan and DRE systems, said recent criticism of the technology “ignores the fact [that] touch-screen voting has worked over the past several years. The systems are tested very rigorously to ensure that they function as intended.”

A spokesman for Diebold Election Systems Inc. in Allen, Texas, noted that critics of the technology “made the same dire predictions before the last presidential election, yet across the country, the touch-screen systems performed extremely well. They were actually more accurate than other forms of voting and much more accessible to people with special needs.”

Kay Brown, spokeswoman for the Alaska Democratic Party, which has charged that voting records from 2004 election in the state were accessed and altered after the election, contended that there should be a national standard for e-voting systems.

“I think that we need major reform,” Brown said. “We need to get away from proprietary software. Everything about the election should be open to public inspection and transparent.”

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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