The Failings of Electronic Voting Machines Could Erode Voter Confidence

By November 24, 2006

When it comes to counting ballots, all eyes are on Florida. This year again, Florida was at the center of one of the most disturbing glitches reported on Election Day. In the congressional race between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings, more than 18,000 voters in Sarasota County failed to choose a candidate. More precisely, the touch-screen voting machines failed to bring up that race or to record voters’ choices. By the middle of the afternoon on Election Day, the voter hotline set up by government watchdog Common Cause had received more than 14,000 calls. Hundreds of callers complained about “vote flipping” in which the machine’s summary screen does not accurately reflect the choices expressed by the voter.

“There were reports of various problems all across the country,” says Courtenay Strickland Bhatia, president and CEO of Verified Voting Foundation. “In isolation, it is not that much. But taken together, it adds up to something significant.”

In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential fiasco, Congress allocated $300 million to allow states to replace their old punch-card and lever machines. Many states went with touch-screen voting machines with the hope they would provide an easier, more accurate and more reliable voting method.

But technical problems have eroded voter confidence and many states now demand a voter-verified paper record to back up the electronic voting machines. That is the case in Alameda County in California.

“Voters print a record before pressing “Cast ballot” on the machine,” explains Guy Ashley, management analyst for the Registrar of Voters in Alameda County. By decision of the Secretary of State, the Diebold touch-screen machines previously in use became illegal because they did not offer a way to verify the vote.

Before November 7, the county switched to Sequoia machines allowing a paper trail or VVPAT in the industry jargon (Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail). In Alameda County, one machine is installed in each precinct to meet federal requirements for disabled access. The rest of the machines use paper ballots which are processed by optical scanning.

This year, Ashley says he did not receive one complaint. “Voter confidence is important and there were concerns in the community. It makes sense to have a permanent record,” he concludes.

“Our machines implement VVPAT because it adds a layer of reassurance for the voters and it gives an extra auditing tool for election officials,” says Michelle Shafer, vice president of communications and external affairs at Sequoia Voting Systems.

“Today 28 states have voter-verified rules and 13 have mandatory manual auditing of a random sample of electronic votes. We are moving in the right direction,” believes Strickland Bhatia of Verified Voting Foundation. However, she warns that the machines have to be user-friendly to both voters and the thousands of volunteers who man the polls.

At the moment, the situation varies widely from state to state with some, including Georgia and Maryland, having gone all electronic. Congress might be on the verge of passing new electronic voting legislation. “The idea has been out there for a long time. But who would pay for it?,” wonders Shaffer from Sequoia.

“One issue with paperless voting is that the reported problems are only the tip of the iceberg. That’s scary. Computer scientists recognize that there are no 100% secure and error-free systems. We need to have a safety net,” adds Strickland Bhatia.

As for voting via Internet, she is even more sceptical. “There have been a couple of pilot projects, particularly with military personnel. But the technology is not mature and we should not be using our democracy as a beta test.”

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