The great American e-voting experiment
16 October 04
By Eugenie Samuel Reich and Celeste Biever
Democratic elections are supposed to be decided by the will of the people. That principle was called into question by the 2000 election for the president of the United States of America, which was famously determined by just 537 votes in Florida and one Supreme Court decision. In November, it may be under scrutiny again, as another close presidential election could be decided by the accuracy of a raft of new voting technologies.
Across the US on 2 November, while some voters register their intent using traditional paper ballots, punched cards and lever machines, others will be using less tried-and-tested systems such as optical scanners and electronic touch-screen voting machines. These new systems are supposed to count votes more accurately.
But concerns are being voiced that electronic technologies can just as easily mean that more votes will go missing or be miscounted. They might even be used to commit election fraud. And unlike conventional voting systems, many electronic systems leave no paper trail to allow results to be double-checked.
In principle, of course, elections are decided by counting up the votes electors have cast. In practice, it has never quite been that simple. ...
The accuracy of a voting system is often assessed by what is called the residual vote. ...
According to this criterion, the most accurate way to record votes is to use optical scanning machines. These work in a similar way to photocopiers, and register a voters pencil mark on the ballot by the amount of light it absorbs. These systems produced a low average residual vote of around 2.1% during presidential elections from 1988 to 2000, according to a study to appear in the Journal of Politics by Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart of the Caltech-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Voting Technology Project.
Touch-screen voting machines have a far higher residual vote of 3.0%. These machines register a residual vote when a voter activates the machine but then fails to cast a vote. Experts attribute the high residual vote on these machines to their sometimes confusing or annoying interface, which require voters to navigate a menu and touch the screen to register their vote for their preferred candidate. Punched cards have a residual vote of 2.9%.
The residual vote is not the only measure of the success of a voting technology. Of equal concern is whether voting machines ever allocate votes to the wrong candidate or can facilitate an election fraud. This is where many new voting technologies have attracted most criticism.
Four independent studies in the past 18 months have identified problems with voting machines that could lead to vote tallies being mistakenly altered or deliberately tampered with (see New Scientist print edition, 14 February). The flaws affect both the hardware and software of machines made by two companies: Diebold Election Systems of McKinney, Texas, and Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, California. Concerns have also been raised about machines made by other manufacturers.
When the margins in an election are wide, these problems are inconsequential, but when the margins are narrow, as in Florida in 2000, these problems dominate the news, says Douglas Jones, a computer scientist at the University of Iowa who has written numerous reports on the security of e-voting systems.
Such concerns have led to calls for every vote cast electronically to be recorded on paper as well. That would allow the vote tallies of machines to be audited ...
Optical scanning machines and punched card machines allow this to be done, as they retain the marked paper ballot. But lever machines, where voters pull a lever that corresponds to their preferred candidates name, do not. Nor do most of the current touch-screen electronic voting machines designed by Sequoia, Diebold and Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Nebraska. Yet, together, these machines will be used in more than 1 in 4 counties across the US.
In Florida, for instance, paperless machines will be used in 15 of the states 67 counties. ...
And mistakes do happen. In 2002, touch-screen machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems were implicated in a fiasco in a local election in Bernalillo county, New Mexico. The system registered only 36,000 votes out of the 48,000 that had been cast. It turned out that the error occurred after votes were downloaded from individual machines memory cards to a central tabulator: a software bug told the tabulator to ignore all votes cast above a certain threshold.
This should not be a problem in Nevada, where all the electronic voting machines used on 2 November will be required to produce a paper record of each vote. Voters will then be able to check this paper ballot and drop it in a ballot box. Nevada is the only state to require this, but California and Ohio, among others, will be watching the outcome closely as they intend to move to the same model for elections in 2006.
But even a paper trail will not guarantee that a system is foolproof or fraud-proof. Ted Selker of MIT, who visited several precincts during state elections in 2002 to watch Nevadas system being deployed for the first time, says he saw several things that worried him about the set-up.
They included unsecured printer cables that could have been pulled out, the use of thermal printing paper that blackens easily on a hot day, and several paper jams. I saw three people looking at the paper trail on election day, he says. In one case, he reports seeing an election official open a printer, take out a roll of jammed votes and cut them up with scissors.
A spokesman for Nevadas secretary of state says he knows of no such problems, ...
But most people still feel more comfortable with a paper trail. ...
Despite such perceptions, the paper trail is much more prone to fraud than the electronic trail, Selker says. He argues that the electronic result is often more likely to be reliable.
Yet public trust in electronic voting is a major issue, one that has not always been helped by the machines manufacturers. Diebold Election Systems allegedly told California state officials that its Accuvote-TSX machines were federally qualified, when they were not, and the machines were used in state elections in four counties in March 2004. Now the state attorney-general Bill Lockyer is suing Diebold for false claims about its products after Californias secretary of state Kevin Shelley decertified the machines in April.
Conflict of interest
Mistrust also stems from the unsatisfactory process by which machines are certified. ...
The outcome of Americas experiment with electronic voting will be studied by dozens of other democracies that are rethinking how to record their peoples votes. Watching will be officials from Australia, India, Venezuela, Brazil, Japan and Europe.
Ironically, all eyes may finally fall on the swing state of Ohio, where the secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, has delayed the introduction of Diebold electronic machines until software glitches can be definitively ruled out. So next month, the citizens of Ohio, where George Bush and John Kerry are running neck and neck, and pollsters predict the outcome could be as close as that in Florida in 2000, will be voting on punched card machines. Could history be about to repeat itself?
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