On Edge Over E-Voting

An electronic voting machine is demonstrated during a news conference Nov. 22, 2000, in Sacramento, Calif. Nearly one in ten registered voters will be using touch-screen machines in California's historic recall election.
Doubts about the trustworthiness of electronic voting machines are growing among election officials and computer scientists, complicating efforts to safeguard elections after the presidential stalemate of 2000.

With just over a year to go before the next presidential race, touchscreen voting machines don't seem like the cure-all some thought they would be. Skeptics fear they'll only produce more problems, from making recounts less reliable to giving computer hackers a chance to sabotage results.

"I'm deeply concerned about this whole idea of election integrity," said Warren Slocum, chief election officer in California's San Mateo County. His doubts were so grave that he delayed purchasing new voting machines and is sticking with the old ones for now.

He's not alone. While the Florida recount created momentum for revamping the way Americans vote, slow progress on funding and federal oversight means few people will see changes when they cast ballots next week. And new doubts could further slow things.

In Florida's Broward County — scene of a Bush-Gore recount of punch-card ballots — officials spent $17.2 million on new touchscreen equipment. Lately, they've expressed doubts about the machines' accuracy, and have discussed purchasing an older technology for 1,000 more machines they need.

The concerns focus on:

  • Voter confidence: Since most touchscreen machines don't create a separate paper receipt, or ballot, voters can't be sure the machine accurately recorded their choice.
  • Recounts: Without a separate receipt, election officials can't conduct a reliable recount but can only return to the computer's tally.
  • Election fraud: Some worry the touchscreen machines aren't secure enough and allow hackers to potentially get in and manipulate results.
"The computer science community has pretty much rallied against electronic voting," said Stephen Ansolabahere, a voting expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "A disproportionate number of computer scientists who have weighed in on this issue are opposed to it."

Other doubters say the solution would be "voter verifiable paper trails" — a paper receipt that voters can see to be confident of their choice, that can then be securely stored, and that election officials can rely on for recounts.

Federal election-reform legislation passed in 2002 aims to upgrade voting systems that rely on punch-card ballots or lever machines, and to improve voter registration, voter education and poll worker training.

States upgrading their equipment are looking at two systems: electronic machines, with voters making their choice by touchscreens similar to ATMs; and older optical scan machines, with voters using pen and paper to darken ovals, similar to standardized tests.

Still, North Dakota changed its plan to give officials the flexibility to go with touchscreens or optical scan machines. And the National Association of Secretaries of State held off from embracing touchscreens at its summer meeting, pending further studies.

"This is too important to just sort of slam through," said William Gardner, New Hampshire's secretary of state. In Congress, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., has introduced a bill that would require that all voting machines create a paper trail.

Computer manufacturers and many election officials say the critics are mistaken. They insist that security is solid and machines records are examinable. They also say the sought-after improvements will create other problems, such as malfunctioning machines and violating the integrity of a voters' privacy.

Slocum figures that only about a half-dozen of California's county election commissioners share his concerns.

The complaints echo those that came up when lever machines were introduced in the 1920s, and again when punch cards came on the scene, said Doug Lewis, an expert at The Election Center in Houston.

"We were going to find that elections were manipulated wildly and regularly. Yet there was never any proof that that happened anywhere in America," Lewis said.

David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold Election Systems Inc., one of the larger voting machine makers, said "the fact of the matter is, there's empirical data to show that not only is electronic voting secure and accurate, but voters embrace it and enjoy the experience of voting that way."

This week, a federal appeals court in California threw out a lawsuit that challenged computerized voting without paper trails, finding that no voting system can eliminate all electoral fraud.

That didn't satisfy doubters.

John Rodstrom Jr., a Broward County (Fla.) commissioner said local officials there wanted to upgrade to optical scan machines, but were pressured into buying more than 5,000 touchscreens.

"We were forced by the Legislature to be a trailblazer," he said. "The vendors ... they're going to tell you it's perfect and wonderful. (But) there are a lot of issues out there that haven't been answered. It's a scary thing."

By Robert Tanner