E-ballots: Will your vote count?

SAN FRANCISCO (01/05/2004) - This election year, rather than punching holes or connecting dots on paper ballots, many of us will cast our votes on electronic touch screens.

Electronic voting systems are already in place in eight states and were used in last November's elections. Many more states will use them in this year's primaries and in the presidential election. Good news, right? After all, computers have to be more accurate and less subject to fraud than old chad-prone paper ballots -- don't they?

Critics say no, claiming that there are numerous problems with oversight and monitoring of the electronic election process. But change is already under way, including several federal bills that would require some form of permanent and immediate ballot trail, and better security.

At your fingertips

The actual e-voting process is simple. Before entering the booth, voters receive a unique identifier (a smart card programmed for single use, for example, or a randomly generated number) to activate the process and make sure only one ballot is cast. At the booth, voters typically see an ATM-like interactive screen with candidates' names; then they touch the screen to make a selection -- the computer does not let them choose too many. When they're done, voters see a summary screen with their choices, accept it, and press an icon to end their session.

The machines store votes on removable PC cards, where they stay until the polling booth closes. Poll workers can then hand-deliver the cards to a designated place for tallying, or counties can set up secure, direct connections to move the data into a central repository. Companies are secretive about whether such transmissions would go over the Internet, but such a path seems likely in at least some cases.

Before the polls open, the machines provide a printout showing that there has been no voting activity; at day's end, a similar printout shows total activity with tallies. If required, machines can also then print each of the ballots cast that day -- though they cannot be traced to an individual.

E-voting advocates point to the many safeguards already built in against fraud and failure, including standardized federal certification of both software code and e-voting hardware by independent testing agencies (ITA). States often do their own review, too.

Pros and cons

Moreover, they say, there are many benefits of e-voting. For example, computers aid disabled voters, by permiting them to magnify screen text or by reading the ballot aloud to them. Multilingual voters can see ballots in any of a dozen languages. Results can be tallied instantly. And military personnel and civilians overseas can vote online, confident that their ballots will count.

So where is the problem? According to Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Ren Bucholz, it comes down to three major things. The federal testing standards date back to 1990, and were only superficially updated in 2000. Government agencies plan further updates to these standards, but that has not happened yet.

Moreover, the ITA reports are not open to the public. The public got its initial view of e-voting code only when an activist downloaded 40,000 pages of documents from an unprotected Diebold Inc. Elections Systems FTP server in 2003. That security breach led to reports by Johns Hopkins and Rice University computer researchers about the system's alleged vulnerabilities, which Diebold has challenged.

Lastly, though printing capabilities exist, they're used after polls close. Given that, like any computer, an e-voting machine can fail or be hacked, critics demand an immediate, permanent record of each ballot, reviewable by a voter prior to ballot submission.

Controversy doesn't stop at the mechanics of the process. Diebold chief executive Walden O'Dell said in a letter to Ohio Republicans that he was committed to delivering the state's electoral votes to Bush in 2004 (he also contributed to Bush's campaign). Such remarks raise doubt about the impartiality of e-voting system makers, according to critics. O'Dell has since told The Plain Dealer, a Cleveland newspaper, that he regrets the wording of the letter and insists that he has no daily involvement with Diebold's election systems division, which he maintains is a model of integrity.


Some change is already underway. Nevada law now requires that all e-voting machines in the state provide receipts for this year's election. Likewise, California has mandated that all e-votes in the state be confirmed with a paper receipt by 2006. Four other states have established the same requirement -- but unlike California, they have not demanded that vendors retrofit existing systems to provide print-outs. Also, a few federal bills have been introduced (namely S.1980, S.1986, HR.2239) that mandate this requirement nationwide.

Kevin Shelley, California's secretary of state, has instituted stricter requirements for testing and auditing voting machine software as well.

The nation's three largest voting machine makers -- Electronic Systems & Software Inc., Diebold, and Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. -- plan to offer paper-audit equipment; Sequoia's systems are ready now.

And e-voting companies are taking security concerns seriously. Six of them, along with the Information Technology Association of America, formed the Election Technology Council. The ETC plans to write an ethical code for e-voting companies, and to review security procedures.

Even e-voting's most ardent critics acknowledge that election fraud is at least as old as the Republic. They are working not to block adoption, they say, but to ensure that e-voting systems are secure and reliable, and allow for independent recounts. The ETC and forthcoming paper receipts should help serve that goal.

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