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Can We Count On It?

Four years after hanging chads made headlines, many people are worried about how electronic voting technology will perform this election season.

Residents can renew their library books online without driving to the library. They also can pay their water bills electronically without cash ever touching their hands. But, when it comes to voting, things are not running so smoothly.

Following the 2000 presidential election, which was marred by glitches in vote counts in Florida, many people wondered why digital technology was not more common at their polling places. New voting machines armed with sophisticated software surely could prevent problems with casting votes and provide a quick and accurate tally.

The voting machines that have emerged, however, do not always work the way they should, and local governments, special interest groups and others are lambasting the technology inside of them. To them, the new machines are unreliable, insecure and subject to tampering. Much of the doubt stems from the machines' source code, which is the software programming that makes it work.

A host of problems have been reported with new electronic voting machines. Communication snafus with electronic voting technology delayed the results of a September 2002 primary in Montgomery County, Md., until early the next morning. Maryland officials later hired a consultant to hack their Diebold machines and see how much tampering they could do. The result: the consultants were able to vote twice and falsify the vote tallies without detection.

When an audit was conducted of votes cast in Miami-Dade County, Fla., earlier this year against the number that a voting machine said had been cast, the two did not match. In San Diego, the March 2004 primaries became a mess when voters showed up at the polls to find the electronic machines not ready to use. Voters, unwilling to wait, left. And, after Fairfax County, Va., spent more than $3 million on new voting machines for its November 2003 election, 10 machines died and 154 others experienced a number of miscellaneous problems.

A culmination of the problems and low confidence in the new voting technology has led 13 members of Congress to ask the General Accounting Office to investigate the security of electronic voting. Suddenly, the infusion of voting technology is under the microscope.

Helping America to vote

The last presidential election spurred federal lawmakers to bring technological advancement to the voting process. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), signed into law in October 2002, provides $3.86 billion to replace antiquated voting equipment with electronic voting machines.

Nearly $700 million of the $3.86 billion is directed at replacing the archaic punch card and lever voting machines. The act assures each state a minimum of $5 million to replace old machines. That should help offset the cost of electronic voting machines, which are approximately $4,000 per unit.

HAVA also has shifted certain election responsibilities from local governments to the state. “One of the most striking changes to election administration brought about by the Help America Vote Act is the concentration of responsibility now placed at the state level,” says New Mexico's Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron. “In many, if not most, states prior to HAVA's enactment, the official file of voters was located with county or municipal township officials. [Now], the official file [must] be computerized and interactive, residing with the chief state elections official's office.”

In addition, HAVA provides funds for education, training of voting officials and policy adjustment. The Act also created the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to oversee those and other voting-related provisions.

Vigil-Giron believes that HAVA will improve election administration by providing more uniform standards for registration and list maintenance. She feels it will allow cities and counties to enhance the integrity of their operations by gathering registration information that conforms to a state standard rather than local standards.

“Cities and counties should benefit from this change, but there is a significant shift of decision-making power away from local government that needs review,” says Skip Stiles, a former aide to California Congressman George Brown. Stiles reviewed a voting technology standard for the National Institute for Science and Technology at the Department of Commerce. “Additional costs need to be monitored, lest this become another unfunded mandate from the federal government.”

Local voices

States regulate, certify and approve the electronic voting machines. Cities and counties usually select from state-approved machines and then administer their use. However, the end users often do not approve and certify the units. Local boards and commissions often are appointed to monitor the best interest of the locality. However, such authority is limited and state regulated.

“In some states, there are two selection bodies: counties and independent election commissions,” says Sanford Morganstein, President of Dundee, Ill.-based Populex, a voting technology manufacturer. “In Illinois for example, independent election commissions exist in the largest jurisdictions, [such as] Chicago, Rockford and Peoria. In the county case, an elected county clerk with budget responsibility to an elected county board makes the decisions.”

In New Mexico, the state approves and certifies voting equipment according to federal standards and the state's voting standards committee statute. “Once approved for use in the state, any county may choose a system from the list of those approved,” says Vigil-Giron, who also is president-elect of the National Association of Secretaries of State, based in Washington, D.C. “The purchases — frequently using no-interest loans through the state Board of Finance — are approved at the state level. Cities use voting systems supplied by counties.”

But a growing mass of cities, counties and other critics are speaking up about the risks that they anticipate with equipment whose reliability is questionable. “[Governments] should be alerted that they may be better off buying nothing rather than buying something just because it is new,” says Arnold Urken, a political science professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Urken also is a member of the Granite, Calif.-based Open Voting Consortium, a group promoting open voting systems where the public can verify the voting machine source code. “There's a bit of disconnect between the states and the cities and counties,” Urken says. “They're the people who use it, and they don't have much input.”

Urken believes that electronic technology and its questionable security has caused local registrars and elections administrators to pay attention to procedures, training and management. For example, election managers may institute simple audit procedures, such as counting the number of people that come through the polls and comparing it to the tally of voters that the equipment registers.

Urken suggests another practice based on a problem he saw when he was inside a polling room that was locked. Machines were turned off before anyone asked if everyone in the room had voted. As it turned out, some of the workers had not cast their votes. The election came down to razor-thin margins that were later contested. A simple practice of not turning off machines until it is certain that all have voted could have prevented the problem.

“While the new technology will come with new challenges in education and security, counties and cities should continue to review their administrative security plans to accommodate these systems,” Vigil-Giron says. “No voting system operates in a vacuum, and we should all [update] our administrative procedures. These include physical storage and transportation, access by staff with an accountable chain of custody and internal office procedures that ensure the highest levels of security.”

Jeff Zaino, vice president of elections at New York-based American Arbitration Association, agrees. “Training of poll workers and machine technicians is essential,” he says. “The [recent] problems, for the most part, have been due to lack of proper poll worker and machine technician training.”

The voting machine controversy has spurred a debate over how much influence the local government should have about the technology it uses. California's Secretary of State Richard Shelly banned some voting machines in four counties, claiming that their certification and reliability testing was faulty. In San Bernardino and Riverside counties, Shelly demanded establishing a verifiable paper trail in conjunction with the electronic voting machines. Some county officials felt the action was an unnecessary restraint that would accomplish nothing. Riverside County is filing a lawsuit against the Secretary of State to use its existing electronic voting machines without a verifiable paper trail.

The paper trail

Shelly is not the only proponent of using a paper trail as a means of reconstructing the vote — from randomly auditing any part of an election to recounting the entire election by hand if warranted. Some think it is difficult to ensure a fair and accurate election without a paper trail.

“It is very important to allow for random audits,” says Cliff Hayes, councilman-elect for Chesapeake, Va. Voters used an archaic punch card ballot system to elect Hayes to the Chesapeake City Council in May 2004. “It's important not to reveal how a particular person voted, but rather that a vote was cast for an individual or issue. We definitely do not want to breach any privacy issues or concerns.”

Chesapeake was able to recount the paper ballots by hand when its electronic voting machines showed its recent mayoral election to be won by only 143 votes from a pool of 27,000 voters. A hand recount determined that the winning candidate actually won by 145 votes. Given the punch card paper trail, verification and recount was possible.

“If the system for recounts involves using the same tallies by the voting machines, then a recount is largely a futile gesture,” says Doug Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and chief technology officer for the Open Voting Consortium. “If the system for recounts involves using an independent record obtained when the voter casts the ballot, such as voter-verified paper audit trails, then recounts are meaningful.”

The verifiable paper trail with electronic voting machines is not an insurmountable task. Most direct recording electronic voting systems can produce a paper printout of votes cast, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State, whose members often regulate the technology used by cities and counties. The audit trail may be stored on a cartridge or printed in the machine. In addition to the audit trail, some states are calling for printouts that voters may view and check for accuracy before their votes are cast.

Approximately 17 states have bills that mandate the use of a voter-verified paper audit trail. In addition, Congress is considering a bill that would do the same.

With the shortcomings of electronic voting technology, will the new technology and an audit trail be ready by the presidential election this fall? Most are not optimistic that all jurisdictions will be ready to use the new technology by then.

“It will be very expensive and impossible in many cities and counties to re-configure and re-certify the current machines to add a [printer] by November 2004,” Zaino says. Hayes agrees. “I think it's going to take time to get us up to speed with voting technology,” Hayes says. “I'm not sure we will be prepared by the presidential election. However, I am interested in working with technology personnel and election official, to address the many concerns.”

More than the machines

Some counties in New York have updated their voting processes to improve overall efficiency and, in one case, to help pay for electronic voting machines. The Monroe County Board of Elections is responsible for keeping its voter registration files current. Previously, a voter registration form came in and went through six people, often getting lost. With new software, from McAllen, Texas-based Hamer Enterprises, Monroe County can quickly scan the registration form and process it through an automated system.

The county also purchased software that allows Internet users to get real- time election results. “You can see the actual votes come in as soon as they're being reported,” says Steve Kelly, IT Customer Services Manager for Monroe County. “People from all over New York State are checking us out, especially for the key state and congressional races. The process is so much quicker. We're not staying until 2 a.m. anymore. We're home in time for the 11 o'clock news.”

Travis County, Texas, also has automated its voter registration records. By swiping a driver's license or voter ID card, the voter's record instantly appears. The new system also allows the county's voter registrar to import registered voters from other counties' databases and run multi-jurisdictional elections.

“These features have greatly expanded our ability to manage various types of local elections,” says Dusty Knight, chief operating officer for the county's tax office. “Adding additional local jurisdictions to elections has helped our county defray the cost of our electronic voting system and enhanced the voting process. It is our goal to provide citizens with the best voting environment and technology possible.”

What technology do voters trust?

Voters who felt comfortable with…
Lever machines 92%
Optical scanners 91%
Electronic technology 88%
Punch cards 84%
Source: The Information Technology
Association of America (ITAA),
May 2004

Access to all

Despite problems with electronic voting machine technology, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) significantly benefits disabled residents. The Act specifies $100 million to provide accessibility at the polls for people with disabilities. For some disabled persons, the provision may allow them to vote in privacy for the first time.

New Mexico's Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron says the change is one of the most important extensions of voting rights in 50 years. “Not only do those with a disability now have the right to vote independently and secretly, the new technology also makes it possible for language minorities and persons who are illiterate to also vote without the assistance of others,” she says.

That is particularly important in New Mexico where many residents speak native American languages that are not written. “[Also,] we have an increasingly large population of aging citizens with macular degeneration and other conditions that afflict the elderly, and [that] will make this technology essential in years to come,” she says.

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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