E-voting debate shifts focus to reliability, accessibility

Grass-roots organizations fear e-voting system malfunctions

Electronic voting system malfunctions and problems with features designed to help disabled Americans vote have led to a flurry of activity this week by grass-roots organizations that fear security concerns are overshadowing the much larger issues of system reliability and usability.

The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday asked a Florida court to overturn a rule imposed by Gov. Jeb Bush that bans manual recounts of direct recording equipment (DRE) touch-screen systems. The move comes amid revelations that nearly all of the electronic records from the touch-screen voting systems used in the 2002 gubernatorial primary in Miami-Dade County were lost last November after a computer crash.

In a similar court action, the Citizens' Alliance for Secure Elections, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Verified Voting Foundation asked a federal court in Ohio to refrain from mandating the use of any e-voting system that doesn't provide a voter-verifiable paper ballot. The court is poised to rule on a lawsuit challenging the use of punch card and optical scan systems.

The friend-of-the-court brief filed by the groups outlined 18 incidents during the past four years that resulted in both election administration problems and disabled voters being effectively disenfranchised.

In the case of the Florida system crash, which erased any hope of conducting an election audit or recount of the 2002 results, the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition and the ACLU of Florida are pressing for paper ballot verification in the 15 Florida counties that will use electronic voting systems this November. Florida election officials, however, argue that touch-screen systems don't require a paper audit trail because they solve the critical issue the state faced during the still-controversial 2000 presidential election -- determining voter intent in cases where a voter fails to vote or votes for more than one candidate.

But critics of the paperless systems this week argued that there are as many reliability and usability issues with the systems as there are security concerns.

In their amicus brief to the Ohio court, the groups outlined a series of system malfunctions that they say prove that DRE system technology is not yet mature or reliable enough to be used without a paper trail.

In the 2002 race for governor in Maryland, for example, some voters complained that they touched the screen next to the Republican candidate's name, but an X appeared in the box next to the Democratic candidate.

Last November in Muscogee County, Ga., there were widespread complaints by citizens who said they voted "no" on a sales tax proposition but saw the machines register "yes." The complaints forced county officials to remove the Diebold Election Systems machines from service during the election. Likewise, a study conducted in April by Alameda County, Calif., showed that nearly 25% of the ballot encoders in Diebold systems failed on election day because of hardware or software problems or both.

Diebold isn't the only vendor whose e-voting systems have experienced technical problems. During a special election in January for a state House seat in Broward County, Fla., e-voting machines manufactured by Electronic Systems & Software Inc. reported a total of 134 undervotes, or 134 ballots in which voters did not select a candidate -- even though there was only one candidate on the ballot.

Disabled Americans have also complained about malfunctions in e-voting systems, although their complaints stem from problems with special features that they say "are not yet the panacea for disabled voters" that vendors say they are.

According to advocacy groups, a significant percentage of disabled citizens still need help when using current DREs and, as a result, can't vote in private.

In addition, Dawn Wilcox, the president of the Silicon Valley Coalition for the Blind, conducted a survey last March to gauge the experience of blind voters who used DREs from Sequoia Voting Systems. The survey revealed that "very few" blind voters were able to vote privately. "I feel this is an unacceptable state of affairs," Wilcox said.

"The American public can't afford to trust the foundation of our democratic system to machines that have failed repeatedly and are vulnerable to tampering," said Will Doherty, executive director of VerifiedVoting.org. And in the unfortunate case where a recount is necessary, "it's not good enough to just reread the vote tally off the e-voting machines for a recount and assume it is an infallible reflection of the will of the voters," said Doherty.

David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold Election Systems, said every piece of voting equipment goes through logic and accuracy testing by state election officials two weeks prior to an election. Logic and accuracy tests consist of an extensive review of the entire voting system to ensure that it is responding correctly and that ballots are configured properly, he said.

Jeff Mordock, a spokesman for AccuPoll Inc., a developer of e-voting systems that will be used in several states this fall, said his company has added paper-based bar-code technology into its AccuPoll Voting Station that meets both the paper audit-trail requirement and the needs of disabled or blind voters.

According to Mordock, blind voters can take their paper receipt to a separate workstation where they can scan their ballot and listen to an audible confirmation of how they voted through headphones.

For more about this topic, see our Special Coverage page on e-voting.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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