E-voting's big test comes today

About 30% of U.S. voters will use electronic voting machines in the election

Today's U.S. general election will be a test not only for the presidential candidates but also for electronic voting machines.

An estimated 30% of the U.S. voting population in 27 states and the District of Columbia will use electronic voting machines in the election, in which Republican President George W. Bush faces Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry. The list of states at least partially using e-voting machines reads like a who's who of critical presidential swing states: the big three of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, plus Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.

With most national polls showing a statistical dead heat between Bush and Kerry, problems with voting technology could play a major role in the election. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have thousands of lawyers ready to swoop into areas where there is voting controversy. Will Doherty, executive director of the Verified Voting Foundation, agrees with pundits who say it could take several days for the U.S. to sort out the winning presidential candidate because of potential problems with e-voting machines.

The Verified Voting Foundation and other groups critical of e-voting machines, often called direct recording electronic machines, or DREs, say voting officials have no way to double-check votes cast on the machines. DREs don't give voters any indication of what's going on inside the machines, and because the machines being used in most states today don't produce paper trails, voting officials have no way to conduct independent recounts, critics say.

"Election officials are not able to show us the work," said Andy Stephenson, associate director of BlackBoxVoting.org, a group critical of e-voting machines.

While e-voting proponents note that ballot stuffing is not a new trend in U.S. elections, e-voting technology could allow large-scale cheating by changing a few lines of code, Stephenson said. "It's the scale of the stuffing," he added. "It'd be a hell of a lot harder for you to carry in a bag with a million [paper] votes. It's the economy of scale."

Although voting didn't open up in all 50 states until today, early voting has been available in several states, and problems with voting technology have already been reported in 16 states, according to the Election Incident Reporting System, operated by the Verified Voting Foundation and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Volunteers reporting e-voting incidents have identified 96 separate incidents, including 44 in Florida and 20 in Texas, as of yesterday, according to the EIRS Web site. No other state had more than five e-voting problems reported.

Among the alleged incidents in Florida so far: voting machines crashing and causing long lines, and voters reporting that they had voted for Kerry but had the machine show them they voted for Bush during the review process. That process allows voters to correct mistakes. More than 300 volunteers will monitor elections for e-voting problems for the Verified Voting Foundation, Doherty said.

But the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), which counts e-voting machine vendors among its members, called e-voting among early voters a "success."

"Returns suggest nothing but the accurate and secure operation of electronic voting machines," ITAA President Harris Miller, said in a statement. "In fact, what we have seen is that the early voting phenomenon, supported by electronic voting systems, continues to grow. People like it, and they have the opportunity to do it because this innovative technology provides election officials with the ability to support numerous ballot types at precincts set up at shopping malls, government offices and other high traffic areas."

Most problems with early voting have not been caused by e-voting machines, added Bob Cohen, senior vice president of the ITAA. "What I've heard and seen is the issues have more to do with voter registration and people showing up and not being on the voter logs," he said. "Our contention is [e-voting machines] are very accurate."

Although there were some reports of crashes of computers holding lists of voter registrations in the first days of early voting in Florida, that problem wasn't related to e-voting machines, Cohen said. "That's not a voting machine," he said. "Certainly, computers crash."

One remedy to voting controversy is a landslide election, said Doherty, whose group is monitoring potential e-voting problems. A large turnout could swing the election and undercut any problems with e-voting machines, Doherty said. Some pollsters and political scientists are predicting a record turnout for a U.S. presidential election.

"If there's overwhelming turnout for one candidate, the problems with the machines are lessened," he said. "The more people who vote, the less likely there will be problems."

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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