Virtual Voting

Electronic voting may be the future — but it’s not looking so good in the present.


Bad news for voters seeking assurances that the fiasco of election day, 2000 — with its chads, butterfly ballots, disputed recounts, and vanishing voter rolls — can’t happen again: it can. Witness the first meeting, on Wednesday, of the Election Assistance Commission wherein a panel of voting advocates and techies derided the very electronic voting systems that were supposed to save us from a repeat of Florida.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the panel, written into existence by the Help America Vote Act more than a year ago, is meeting only now, six months before election day.

In the meantime, $3.8 billion of federal money earmarked to improve U.S. voting has been stalled, leaving problems unsolved for the November election. Still, 50 million people are set to vote in November using touchable monitors or digital levers. As the Washington Post‘s Dan Keating put it, the U.S. has gone about voting reform completely backwards–by pushing for new systems before even making sure they work.

For example: Johns Hopkins University professor Aviel Rubin described before the Washington panel his experiments demonstrating the fallibility of the machines. After easily inserting bugs into some 49,000 lines of code, Rubin announced in a report last fall that digital voting, as-is, “places our very democracy at risk.” Having volunteered in March as a Maryland primary election judge, Rubin has sharpened his criticism. Hacking a Diebold machine is as simple as getting a one-dollar plastic card and jotting down some security codes, Ian Hoffman of the Oakland Tribune points out. Device errors assigned thousands of absentee ballots to the wrong candidates in California on Super Tuesday.

While Congress and most states are just starting to debate the merits and detriments of electronic voting, Californians have already taken action to yank 14,000 buggy touch-screen systems that plagued polling places in March elections. Of 100,000 touch-screen systems throughout the country, 40 percent are in California. Golden State lawmakers aim to bar the installation of new e-voting kiosks that don’t print a paper record of each ballot. California’s Secretary of State, Kevin Shelley
is pledging to investigate voting machine maker Diebold for fraud. Shelley blasted Diebold as “despicable” for illegally installing uncertified machines and then lying about it. The second-largest digital voting equipment maker knowingly deployed faulty terminals at two of the state’s largest urban counties. Company memos indicated that Diebold hid its product flaws for fear of losing business, including $50 million in contracts with 19 California counties. Using Super Tuesday as a test drive for virtual voting , Diebold cost real people real votes.

The New York Times quoted former National Security Agency official and Diebold machine-tester Michael Wertheimer: “They’re absolutely fixable problems,” but “the time for mea culpas are behind for all of these companies. They have to get out front and say, ‘We are going to make these systems secure.'” The Pentagon has already deemed electronic voting unreliable and dumped its plans to implement new systems.

Yet most people have few reservations about electronic voting, according to the Information Technology Association of America. Of the 1,000 people polled by the industry trade group, which includes voting machine makers, 88 percent said they trusted digital ballots and 90 percent trusted new lever or optical scan devices. Only slightly fewer, 84 percent, put their faith in punch cards.

Seemingly undeterred by California’s decertification of Diebold devices, Ohio lawmakers approved $38 million to digitize ballots in 31 counties. The Midwestern state doesn’t plan to use new machines by November, and it won’t demand ballot printouts until 2006. This could change in the coming months, however, if the National Federation for the Blind wins a lawsuit forcing Ohio counties to make last-minute upgrades to the still-shaky digital devices.

Four Congressional bills attempt to allay the worries by requiring a paper trail for each vote. Only the SAVE Voting Act sponsored by California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer addresses the threat that insiders could steal an election by tinkering with the software code hidden within voting systems. And none of the bills establishes ethical standards to prevent political conflicts of interest among corporate voting machine manufacturers and operators. Training technophobic poll workers is another unmet challenge.

PC World columnist Anush Yegyazarian
explains

Because these systems are not as simple as paper and pen, election officials and poll workers can’t be expected to anticipate all the possible problems. No matter how much training they get, they won’t suddenly become IT experts. They’re not supposed to be rebooting systems or deciphering error messages flashing on an e-voting system’s equivalent of the Windows blue screen of death.

She urges readers to be patient as the nation’s polling booths go digital:

We wanted voting systems to be perfect, but they’re not. Like many electronic devices more complicated than a toaster, they’re not quite finished yet. Software and firmware upgrades continuously aim to make the voting process smoother and easier, and hardware gets more compact or more reliable. That’s progress.

However, voting systems aren’t supposed to be treated like PCs, where patches and security updates are seemingly released every other week … At some point–in time for full federal and local certification of systems, one hopes–code and hardware just have to freeze. And our elected officials have to enforce that.