On Tuesday, 4 out of 5 voters across America will use touch-screen machines or optical scanners to cast their ballots. More than one-third of the electorate will vote electronically for the first time, raising questions about whether voters, machines, and poll workers are up to the task.
After the disputed 2000 Presidential election and Florida's infamous "hanging chad" punch-card recount, the federal government allocated $3 billion to help states buy new voting machines and created the Election Assistance Commission to oversee the sweeping change.
"I'm confident with all the machines that are being put out there, whether it's one company or another," says EAC Chairman Paul DeGregorio. "In the end, you can trust the results."
But states with the new machines are hedging their bets. According to the non-partisan Electionline.org, 18 of the 33 states using touch screen machines require them to generate a paper trail – a kind of cash register scroll covered in clear plastic – that voters can see and verify before they punch the "vote" button that records their vote. Nowhere does a voter receive a printout of their vote like an ATM receipt.
To the ire of many voting watchdog groups, 15 states using touch screen machines do not require a voter verifiable paper trail.
Changes — Too Much Too Soon?
Electionline.org Director Doug Chapin found half the states that made the switch to machines did so in the past two years – potentially increasing the chance of mishaps. Connecticut, for example, will be using optical scanners in 25 towns for the first time on Election Day.
"Lots of jurisdictions around the country have been asked to swallow a lot of change in 2006, and many of them are going to suffer indigestion," Chapin says.
In fact, the more low-tech optical scanners are the most popular machines. Fifty-six percent of U.S. counties, with 49% of the nation's registered
voters, will be using optical scan equipment, while only 36% of counties, with 38% of the voters will use the touch screens, according to Election Data Services.
With scanners, a voter typically fills out their choices with a pen on a paper ballot – typically ovals as on a standardized test. The scanner counts the votes and stores the paper ballots, forming an automatic paper trail for a recount.
Fears the machines may fail has driven up voter anxiety. So have reports of machine snafus in primaries this year — paper jams, power outages, service issues, and setbacks tabulating results.
In Maryland, the governor and his challenger asked supporters to vote by paper absentee ballots, and the state ordered enough for half its voters. In Colorado, a judge ruled its states machines should never have been certified.
Ohio-based Diebold, the nation's leading vote machine manufacturer, has supplied 38 states with 136,000 touch screen units and 24,000 optical scanners.
"Diebold does not control the elections. We provide the election equipment," says Diebold Marketing Director Mark Radke.
During a show-and-tell at company headquarters, Radke demonstrated how a plastic voter access card is ejected and voided so you cannot vote again, and how a security sticker covers the slot for the machine's memory card.
"Even if that memory card disappears for some reason, you still have all the votes that have been cast on that machine in your internal, non-volatile memory," Radke says.
Radke likes to point out that machines help voters avoid mistakes like "overvoting" – picking two candidates – and "undervoting" – failing to pick anyone for an office – because the machine prompts a voter to recheck such choices.
Although touch screen machines are neither connected to one another or the Internet, if machines were to switch votes due to sabotage or tampering, you might never know.
"I think we need to replace them and not use systems that are requiring trust in software that can never be trusted," says John Hopkins University computer scientist Avi Rubin, author of "Brave New Ballot," a critique of the machines, particularly Diebold's.
"If the systems go down because of something like a power outage or a power surge or a glitch, it's very possible that event would cause the hard discs and the flashcards inside of them to fail," Rubin says.
Princeton University computer science professor Edward Felten has demonstrated a machine could be vulnerable to an electronic Trojan horse — a computer virus that could steal votes and tilt an election. Felten obtained an old Diebold machine and tampered with its memory card in his office, causing votes in a mock presidential election to switch from George Washington to Benedict Arnold.
"A single person might be able to steal an election in a nearly undetectable way in a real election in the United States," Felten says. "Either you switch to a backup system, like a low-tech paper ballot, of you just cross your fingers and hope for the best."