William Jackson | Cybereye: E-standards needed for national elections

Here we are, well into another election season, still with no standards in place to ensure that votes cast in national contests are accurately recorded and counted.

The growing adoption of electronic voting systems, intended to quell questions about the validity of ballots, instead has added another layer of uncertainty to the election process. Despite the potential for technology to make voting more convenient and tabulation more efficient, the rush to implement systems without clear standards for security and reliability has left us no better off than we were in 2000.

The problem is not that electronic voting systems, including the popular touch-screen systems that record votes digitally, are inherently bad. But they are subject to all of the bugs and vulnerabilities of any IT system, and experience has shown than any system that doesn’t have security built in from the beginning is subject to manipulation.

When such systems are used in institutions of public trust, such as elections, security must be independently verified to be meaningful. But many states are using equipment provided by vendors who say, “Trust me.”

A variety of electronic systems examined by experts have displayed flaws that could be used to affect the outcome of an election. Supporters of the systems dismiss these issues by saying that no e-voting system has been gamed to throw an election and that no system is perfect.

These arguments do not stand up. Just because it hasn’t happened yet (or we haven’t discovered it yet) does not mean it won’t happen, and the fact that no system is perfect does not mean that we shouldn’t make the systems we’re using as good as possible.

Fortunately, voter-verified paper records could help protect against e-flaws. These records would create a paper trail that would be used to verify electronic results and, in the case of a dispute, would serve as the final word on what votes were cast. This combines the convenience of electronic voting with the assurance of a paper record.

Some states go it alone

In the absence of a federal requirement for a paper trail, at least 27 states have passed their own laws requiring one, according to VerifiedVoting.org Inc. Thirteen of them require some level of manual audit to verify electronic results. Another eight states are using paper records, although they are not required.

But there are currently 15 states, accounting for 189 of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect a president, that have no requirement for a verifiable paper trail in the election process.

At least nine bills on election accountability have been introduced in the 109th Congress, six in the House and three in the Senate. Most would require some form of paper trail with electronic voting, but the chances of any of them making it out of this Congress are about as slim as your chances of receiving a cash payout from a Nigerian expatriate.

One bill, HR 550, would provide a comprehensive set of standards for electronic voting. It would require a paper record and manual audits of random precincts by the Election Assistance Commission, ensure that software on election machines is available for review, restrict wireless and Internet connections for voting equipment and prohibit conflicts of interest in companies producing and certifying voting hardware and software.

This bill was referred to the House Administration Committee in February 2005 and has languished there while Congress addressed more important issues such as flag burning and an official language.

It is too late for any federal protection for the 2006 elections, but maybe—just maybe—the 110th Congress can be persuaded to take its responsibility seriously.

William Jackson is a GCN senior writer. E-mail him at [email protected].

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