The Common Good
September 2004

The Machine Ate My Vote

by David Batstone | September 2004

E-voting may make us nostalgic for hanging chads.

Florida,

Florida, 2000 presidential election—the vote count long will be recalled as a low point in U.S. democratic politics.

The hue and cry of electoral corruption and a stolen election compelled the U.S. Congress to act. Boldly, it committed $3.9 billion in matching federal funds to assist states in the transition toward digital voting systems. Here, under the flag of the Help America Vote Act, was the answer for hanging chads.

Remarkably, about 30 percent of the electorate—50 million voters or so—will submit a ballot in the coming November elections using paperless machines. Be worried. The e-voting system in place is dangerously vulnerable to fraud.

It’s not that electronic voting is a new innovation. A number of counties have utilized optical-scan and punch-key machines since the late 1960s. Then, nearly a decade ago, paperless touch-screen machines arrived, though at the time their high cost made their widespread use prohibitive for all but a few counties. The manufacturers of the new generation of machines promote their wares as affordable and easier to use.

Unfortunately, paperless touch-screen machines also are more susceptible to voter fraud. When optical-scan machines go haywire, poll officials have recourse to a back-up, printed document of how the original vote was cast. Touch-screen ballots, on the other hand, do not leave a paper trail, so officials cannot retrace voter intentions.

THE EARLY USE of touch-screens show that these red flags should be heeded. In North Carolina’s 2002 general election, six touch-screen machines malfunctioned and deleted 436 electronic ballots. In a post-election investigation, the manufacturer determined that the machines erroneously had stopped counting votes even while the polls were still open.

In a January 2004 special election for a House seat in Florida, paperless voting terminals recorded 134 cast ballots as blank. The race ended up being decided by a margin of 12 votes. Left without a printed record, election officials could not recapture how voters intended to chose, and the results stood.

Beyond unresolved technical problems, the people behind the machines do not provide comfort. The two dominant makers of voting machines have tainted themselves with close ties to GOP candidates. For example, last year the CEO of industry-leader Diebold Elections Systems, Walden O’Dell, wrote a donor-ask letter to wealthy Republicans announcing that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president" in 2004. At the time of the letter’s delivery, Diebold was making a bid to the state of Ohio to become its supplier of touch-screen machines.

One does not have to be swimming in a sea of conspiracy theories to recognize the danger of voter fraud. Absent a paper record of cast ballots and with software that—according to respected computer scientists—is very hackable, fixing an election might pass without detection.

The e-voting industry considers these critiques as typical anxiety that accompanies technical innovation. Trust us, they say. But their interests, as well as the democratic process, would be better served by coming up with a system of accountability that might actually give us reason to trust the technology.

Until that happens, poll officials must demand a verified paper trail for digital machines. At least 20 states are considering legislation that mandates printed documentation of voter intention. California has gone the furthest to ensure election integrity, putting a ban on touch-screen machines until manufacturers can offer more reliable security. In the other states, however, the laws (even if passed) may not impact this year’s presidential election.

Despite the high stakes, e-voting systems are second-rate. This past summer The New York Times sent journalists to investigate how the Nevada Gaming Control Board ensures that electronic gambling machines in Las Vegas operate honestly and accurately. Their findings: Protocols put in place on the Las Vegas Strip are much more stringent than those required for e-voting. "Electronic voting, by comparison [to monitoring of gambling machines], is rife with lax procedures, security risks, and conflicts of interest," conclude the editors of the Times.

It’s troubling to think that we can walk into a casino with more confidence than we can approach the ballot box.

David Batstone is executive editor of Sojourners.

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