Tallying the Woes of Electronic Balloting
More than 45 million people in 29 states and the District of Columbia are set to vote using touch-screen machines Nov. 2. But the devices once hailed as the answer to the nation’s voting woes are stirring up some serious cases of buyer’s remorse here and across the country.
California officials have accused the companies that make electronic voting machines of delivering shoddy equipment and are suing to get their money back. Candidates in other states seeking to overturn questionable election results have turned to the courts as well. Election reform advocates rallied in 19 states this summer, demanding that the machines be retrofitted to produce paper ballots that could be tallied in the event of a recount.
Meanwhile, computer scientists from coast to coast have warned that the machines sometimes err in counting votes and could be easily compromised by amateur hackers intent on disrupting elections. In either case, they say, a manual recount would be meaningless if it was based on corrupted electronic data.
All of this has left officials like Palm Beach County Commissioner Addie Greene wishing they hadn’t rushed to spend millions of dollars on the new touch-screen machines so soon.
In the last few months, as Greene campaigned for reelection, she told dozens of senior citizens to forget the newfangled voting terminals and put pencil to paper on their absentee ballots instead.
“I want our votes to be counted,” said Greene, a 61-year-old Democrat. “I’d rather do absentee ballots than take a chance on the machines.”
Greene is an unlikely critic of the electronic voting machines. After all, she helped get 5,000 of them deployed throughout this seaside county of 1.2 million residents.
Election officials nationwide were anxious to toss their antiquated voting systems after the 2000 presidential election debacle, which featured teams of Florida vote counters squinting to determine whether chads were hanging, pregnant or dimpled. Twenty-nine percent of registered voters will use touch-screen machines this November, up dramatically from 12% only four years ago, according to Election Data Services, a political consulting firm in Washington.
In California, 11 counties representing about 20% of the state’s registered voters will use electronic voting machines in November.
The appeal of electronic voting machines was simple: They eliminate the headaches of dealing with paper.
With most models, voters select their candidates by pressing the screen just as they would to withdraw cash from an ATM. The machines ask users to confirm their selections before storing their votes on an internal hard drive and ensure that ballots aren’t disqualified because votes are accidentally cast for more than one candidate in a race.
There are other advantages too. The screens can be programmed to display ballots in different languages, greatly reducing printing costs. And advocates for disabled people like the fact that the voting terminals can display ballots in large type and guide blind people through the voting process using audio prompts.
In April 2001, Greene flew to Riverside County with a delegation of South Florida officials to see the touch-screen machines in action. They came home with rave reviews and spent $56 million to deploy electronic voting terminals in Florida’s three most populous counties: Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.
“We were not as knowledgeable as we are now, so we made a lot of mistakes,” Greene recalled. “We didn’t ask the questions we should have asked.”
Chief among them: How can we conduct a recount if we don’t have any ballots to count?
Now election officials in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade are lobbying the state for permission to attach printers to their new machines so votes can be tallied by hand if a malfunction is suspected or a recount is called for.
But state officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush, say the machines are safe, easy to use and replete with safeguards to ensure accuracy. They note that a stored digital image of each vote can be printed for a manual recount. And they say printers are expensive, difficult to maintain for poll workers and useless for blind people who can’t read the paper record.
“Creating a paper trail for each voter is unnecessary except to eliminate the paranoia of the critics,” officials with the Florida Department of State and the Florida State Assn. of Supervisors of Elections wrote in a policy paper this summer.
Many voters seem comfortable with the machines. As he emerged from a polling place in Palm Beach Gardens during Florida’s August primary, Mike Tuchman, a physician, said he hadn’t thought twice about casting his vote on a computer.
“We make decisions about life and death every day with these things,” he said. “So I guess they can count my vote.”
Well, maybe not. Last fall, Fort Lauderdale political strategist Ellyn Bogdanoff won a state Senate seat by only 12 votes out of 10,844 cast. Mysteriously, 137 voters cast blank electronic ballots in the election. Either they had taken the trouble to go to the polls and vote for no one, officials figured, or the machines hadn’t registered the votes.
State law mandated a recount in such a close election. But since the votes were stored only in the computer’s memory, that was impossible. So election officials just certified the race.
“The potential for problems this year dwarfs what happened in 2000, because there’s nothing to check,” said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Delray Beach Democrat who has lobbied for mandatory paper trails since Florida started considering touch-screen machines. He even sued the state over the issue and lost; the case is on appeal.
Anomalies like this have occurred with electronic voting machines around the country:
* In Fairfax County, Va., some voters who chose School Board member Rita S. Thompson last November saw an “X” appear next to her name, then the “X” disappeared. After the election, tests revealed that about 1% of votes cast for Thompson were deleted. She lost by 1,662 votes out of more than 157,000 cast.
* Hinds County, Miss., spent $1.6 million on touch-screen machines. The machines overheated as soon as polls opened last November. Polling places ran out of paper ballots, some of which were handled improperly. The state legislature ordered a new election in one race, which cost the county about $25,000.
* In Bernalillo County, N.M., a software glitch in the computer program used to tally votes ignored 12,000 of the 48,000 electronic ballots cast in a 2003 election. Officials didn’t notice for 10 days.
After touch-screen voting terminals made by Diebold Election Systems malfunctioned in a March primary, California election officials discovered that the machines contained uncertified software.
The state barred four counties from using some Diebold models and approved their use in 11 other counties only after the counties agreed to new security requirements, including making paper ballots available as an alternative to voters. The state sued Diebold this month for allegedly lying about the security of some of its equipment and is seeking a refund of the $8 million it spent and an additional $11 million spent by Alameda County.
The state’s feud with Diebold prompted Solano County in Northern California to cancel a $4.1-million contract with Diebold, return 1,200 touch-screen machines and replace them with optical scanners that read paper and pencil ballots.
“There are some advantages” to touch-screen voting machines, said California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. “But they were brought into play before their time.”
Election officials aren’t the only ones concerned about technical flaws in voting machines. Nearly 2,000 engineers, academics and other techies have signed a petition deriding computerized voting machines as “inherently subject to programming error, equipment malfunction and malicious tampering.” At the Defcon computer security conference in July, 81% of computer professionals polled said they had “no confidence or little confidence” in the “security and reliability” of electronic voting machines.
Computer scientists from Johns Hopkins University, UC San Diego and Rice University studied the source code for Diebold machines and reported in an academic journal that the software was poorly written and lacked the cryptography necessary to protect key information from hackers. As a result, they said, a hacker could vote as many times as he wanted or tamper with the machines to divert votes cast for one candidate to someone else. Diebold said the scientists had inspected an old version of the software and defended their machines as safe from tampering or error.
Election officials can ask the machines to recount the votes, but if a software bug or a hacker changed the results before they were counted, the machine would spit out the same incorrect tally the second time around. It’s like asking a bank to recalculate your monthly statement without having evidence that all your transactions were properly recorded.
Computer scientists say the answer is simple: allow the machines to print paper receipts that could be treated like ballots in a recount.
“We wouldn’t trust the software if we wrote it ourselves,” said Eugene H. Spafford, a Purdue University professor and executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security. “Having paper or some other kind of permanent record gives us the ability to independently perform a check on these machines.”
Nevada is the only state that has mandated printers for its touch-screen systems by November. California and Ohio have required them to be in place by 2006, and lawmakers in 21 other states are considering similar action, according to Electionline.org, a Washington group that follows election reform.
Though some people call them “receipts,” they’re not like the transaction records produced by ATMs. Voters can’t take them home, or even touch them.
Here’s how it works: After the voter chooses candidates by touching the screen, a printed record of the choices appears under clear plastic or glass so he or she can verify that the computer recorded the selections correctly. The machine will still tabulate the votes electronically. But if a malfunction is later discovered, or if the vote is close enough to warrant a recount, election officials can pull out the paper for a hand tally.
Joined by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, members of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, the Assn. for Computing Machinery and hundreds of other advocates have rallied across the country in support of printers, which would cost $500 to $1,000 to add to each machine.
Engineers are also working on a hybrid: a touch screen whose purpose is not to count votes but simply to print ballots that would be read by traditional optical scanning machines, which tally votes by counting ink or pencil markings.
But some advocates of electronic voting say printers are an unnecessary expense and could be troublesome to the poll workers who would deal with paper jams and other malfunctions. The four congressmen who wrote the Help America Vote Act, a 2002 law that gave states nearly $3.9 billion to upgrade voting systems, said in a note to colleagues that printers “would essentially take the most advanced generations of election technologies and systems ... and reduce them to little more than ballot printers.”
Some computer scientists insist that adding expensive printers to existing machines is better than doing nothing. Even better, they say, would be to set the high-tech systems aside and stick with optical scanners.
Studies of past elections concluded that optical scanners were more accurate than touch screens. One survey by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project found that optical scanners had a 1.6% error rate in U.S. presidential elections from 1988 to 2000, compared with a 2.2% error rate for electronic voting machines and 2.6% for the most common punch-card system.
“People often look for a quick technological fix to a complex social problem,” said Will Doherty, executive director of the Verified Voting Foundation, a nonprofit started by a Stanford University computer science professor. “I don’t believe those machines are the wave of the future.”
In Florida, state officials found that electronic voting machines were three times as likely to record “undervotes,” or ballots cast that didn’t register a vote, compared with optical scanners during the 2002 gubernatorial election. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that electronic voting machines were six times as likely to record undervotes in the presidential primary in March.
Though the undercount rates were less than 1% for both devices, if the trend found by the Sun-Sentinel holds in November that could mean 7,800 incorrect votes in Palm Beach and Broward counties alone -- a huge number in a state that was decided by 537 votes last time around.
Voters seem to be mindful of that in Palm Beach County, where Addie Greene was promoting the use of absentee ballots. More than 31,000 of the 207,000 voters in last month’s primary used the mail-in ballots instead of going to the polls -- three times as many as usual.
When the votes were counted, Theresa LePore, the county elections supervisor who created the infamous butterfly ballot and oversaw the move to touch-screen machines, was out of office. She was replaced by Arthur Anderson, a political unknown who made adding printers to e-voting machines a central issue in his campaign.