Editorial: E-voting: The need for paper

Information technology has an important role to play in voting, particularly after the 2000 presidential vote and the infamous hanging chads

Few things are more fundamental to a democracy than the right to vote. Given technology’s ability to help organizations operate better, faster and more efficiently, information technology has an important role to play in voting, particularly after the 2000 presidential vote and the infamous hanging chads. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 pushed states to undertake what most consider to be the largest overhaul of voting equipment in the country’s history.

In its Nov. 6 issue, Time magazine correctly pointed out that there is a misconception that elections were perfect “PC” — pre-computer. They weren’t, and they can and should be improved.

Unfortunately, six years after the 2000 presidential election and four years after the Help America Vote Act, people seem more concerned than ever about the validity of elections. Electronic voting systems have not moved us closer to the goal of improving the public’s faith in fair and accurate elections.

To the contrary, e-voting systems have become such an issue that Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich suggested returning to paper ballots after the state faced many problems with e-voting systems during primaries. “When in doubt, go paper, go low-tech,” he said.

In many ways, the development of e-voting systems is a test case for what not to do when developing systems.

Problems abound with e-voting systems. Many people question their security. Others worry about the lack of training for poll workers who will need to keep those machines running.

But for us, the most inconceivable part of e-voting is the resistance to paper receipts. Ed Felten, a Princeton University professor who recently co-authored a report on the vulnerabilities of direct-recording touch-screen electronic systems, has argued that paper receipts would give voters a tangible record of their intent — receipts that software cannot alter. Receipts provide a backup record to use in recounts and audits.

Inexplicably, many e-voting systems manufacturers have resisted or rejected the call for paper receipts. However, 28 states either use optical scan systems, which have paper ballots or require printers for touch-screen machines. The simple addition of a paper receipt would be a huge step toward addressing citizen concerns about e-voting.

Everyone must focus on the goal. The goal isn’t using electronic systems. The goal isn’t even to count the votes more efficiently, although that would be beneficial. The goal — as lofty as it sounds — is to create a system that enhances people’s confidence that their voice is being heard and reassures their faith in democracy. Paper audit trails are an obvious path toward that goal.


About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.

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