Budgets and mandates slow adoption of e-voting

Most state and local governments have not bought electronic voting systems because they can’t afford to and because they fear buying a system that won’t meet future government mandates—but security concerns haven’t been a deterrent, election officials and e-voting advocates said today in Washington.

Demands that e-voting machines include voter-verified paper records—demands contained in state and federal legislative proposals—will not improve security, as their proponents suggest, and have discouraged e-voting implementation, the e-voting advocates said. They spoke at a media briefing sponsored by the Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington, Va., trade group.

The argument that a paper trail is needed to verify election results is “a bogus argument that has delayed implementation [of electronic voting] in many states,” said Jim Dickson, vice president for governmental affairs at the American Association of People with Disabilities. Dickson, who is blind, said electronic voting can allow people with disabilities to vote in secret, a privilege accorded most citizens.

Voter-verified paper records, which voters check to confirm the accuracy of their votes, have been tested in just two jurisdictions—Sacramento, Calif., and Wilton, Conn.—said Daniel Tokaji, an assistant professor at Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio. The tests showed significant problems, including paper jams that gummed up the voting process, he said.

Most problems with electronic voting have been administrative problems, not technology problems, the e-voting advocates said.

Even when the problem is technology related, the error rate is comparable, or better than, the error rates of older voting systems, Tokaji said. For example, 33 out of 16,000 voters in a recent Orange County, Calif., election received the wrong electronic ballot.

“In every election where punch card machines are used, you lose at least that many votes,” he said.

Older voting systems, such as punch-card ballots, did not record 2 million votes during the 2000 elections, Dickson said.

“The same thing will happen this November,” he said, because only 12 percent of U.S. counties will be using electronic voting systems. He said electronic voting systems reduce errors because they can present ballots in multiple languages and also prevent people from voting more than once for the same position.

After the controversy about the Florida presidential election tallies in 2000, in which punch card ballots were used, “a lot of people will be surprised that … we have the exact same problems and the same technology people were so embarrassed about in 2000,” said Harris Miller, ITAA president.

Election officials from Lee County, Fla., and the state of Maryland said they’re sure their e-voting systems are secure because they test all the equipment before every election.

In Lee County, reports are run on each machine at the beginning and the end of the day that show when voting began and ended and how many votes were collected. The vote tallies are transferred from polling places to the county’s tabulation system via direct modems that are not connected to the Internet, and the tabulation system is not connected to the Internet or tied to any system connected to the Internet, said Sharon Harrington, the county’s supervisor of elections.

Since the touch-screen voting systems were installed in 2002, there have been no security problems, Harrington said.

In Maryland, votes are also transferred via modem, and all the information is encrypted, said Linda Lamone, state administrator of elections.

The process of rigging voting technology to throw an election is so complicated as to be impossible, Lamone said. Just some of the necessary steps include:

  • Gaining access to the software to replace it in 16,000 voting machines

  • Making the software ignore pre-election testing

  • Programming the software to change votes throughout the day without notice from election officials

  • Gaining access to Maryland’s 600 ballot designs.

Gail Repsher Emery is a staff writer for Washington Technology magazine.

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