Sunday, September 19, 2004

The NYTimes > Campaign 2004 > Ready or Not … Electronic Voting Goes National

The New York Times > Washington > Campaign 2004 > Ready or Not (and Maybe Not), Electronic Voting Goes National:
"Whether or not the machines are ready for the election - or the electorate ready for the machines - there is no turning back. In what may turn out to be one of the most scrutinized general elections in the country's history, nearly one-third of the more than 150 million registered voters in the United States will be asked to cast their ballots on machines whose accuracy and security against fraud have yet to be tested on such a grand scale."

Because of the uncertainties, experts say there is potential for post-election challenges in any precincts where the machines may malfunction, or where the margin of victory is thin. Sorting out such disputes could prove difficult.

"The possibility for erroneous votes or malicious programming is not as great as critics would have you believe," said Doug Chapin, the director of, a nonpartisan group tracking election reform. "But it's more than defenders of the technology want to admit. The truth lies somewhere in between."

Since the 2000 presidential election and its contentious aftermath, voting systems that record votes directly on a computer - as opposed to those that use mechanical levers or optically scanned paper ballots - have quickly moved to the center of a rancorous debate. The disagreement pits those who see them as unacceptably vulnerable to vote manipulation and fraud against those who see them as an antidote to the wretched hanging chad.

Even in the final run-up to November's elections, the issue remains in flux. In California, the machines have been certified, decertified and recertified again. In Ohio, a closely contested state, an electronic upgrade to the state's predominantly punch-card system was halted in July by the secretary of state there, who cited unresolved security concerns.

All the while, a vocal mixture of computer scientists, local voting-rights groups and freelance civic gadflies have relentlessly cited security flaws in many of the machines, with some going so far as to say that the flaws could be intentional and accusing the major companies of having ties to conservative political causes.

The companies and election officials have fought back bitterly, accusing the activists of being wild-eyed fearmongers. A study released by last month would seem to suggest that partisan politics plays less of a role than critics have claimed.

That report found "no industrywide partisan trend to political contributions among the largest election system companies." The leader in the electronic voting machine market, Diebold, and its executives have given more than $400,000 to Republican interests since 2001, the study found. But other large companies, including Election Systems & Software and Sequoia Voting Systems, "gave a slight edge to Democratic candidates and party organizations."

Concerns over the security and accuracy of the machines have proved harder to dispel, though, and they have not always come from the fringe.

At the end of June, two prestigious groups - the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights - issued a set of recommendations for technical upgrades and procedures that they said could help shore up high-tech voting systems in time for the November elections.

Nancy Zirkin, the deputy director of the Leadership Conference, said she thought that the report had been taken seriously, but conceded that the group did not know how many states or precincts had actually adopted the recommendations.

Other critics say that too little has been done in response to numerous problems - and that it is now too late to do much more before the election, because software and technology have to be tested and "frozen" well ahead of voting to avoid malfunctions and electoral chaos.

"Switching now, approximately 40 days before the election, would probably introduce more security problems than it would avoid," said Aviel D. Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University who brought many of the vulnerabilities in voting systems to light.

Harris N. Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group that represents many of the voting machine makers, concedes that the industry has probably not been sensitive enough to the political nuances surrounding voting technology - particularly in the aftermath of the 2000 election. But he argued that the fears expressed by many of those opposed to electronic voting are driven as much by ignorance as by passion.

"What we're replacing is a system that was broken - so broken that Congress passed a special law," he said, referring to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was designed to help overhaul the nation's election system in the aftermath of the 2000 debacle. "It was so broken that Congress appropriated over a billion dollars to fix it," he said.

The law, which established the Election Assistance Commission, generally encourages the movement away from punch cards and the exploration of other voting technologies. The law also calls for the federal standards agency, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, to develop universal standards for voting systems. But the agency says the $500,000 Congress appropriated last year for such efforts has been exhausted, and Congress did not provide additional funds for the effort in 2004.

As for security concerns, Mr. Miller said that vendors submit their source code - the underlying instructions for the machines' software - for independent inspection, to uncover any hidden programming and to ensure that the machines calculate properly.

Critics, however, point out that the labs inspecting the software are typically paid by the vendors themselves, and that they somehow failed to uncover the flaws discovered by Mr. Wertheimer, Professor Rubin, and election officials in Ohio, Maryland and elsewhere.

While it is too late in the game to make it possible to produce a paper record for each vote on every machine already deployed, Mr. Miller said that vendors would be willing to include that feature in the future if the market demanded it. Most of the major vendors have models that can supply a printed record, but in most cases, Mr. Miller said, election officials have not required it.

Paper receipts are not automatically required because no such universal guideline has ever existed. Mechanical lever machines, for instance, which have been in widespread use since the 1930's - and will still be used by millions of voters this year - have never produced a paper record of each vote. And states have traditionally established their own definitions of what constitutes a ballot.

Still, the scrutiny and criticism that have dogged electronic voting machines over the last year all but guarantee that a pall of suspicion and distrust will hang over a technology that awaits approximately 45 million registered voters if they go to the polls. Whether the concerns are justified or overblown, experts say, in the wake of the 2000 election controversy, the mere hint of unreliability this time could turn the electronic vote, should the margin of victory be narrow, into one more tinderbox.

"The woods aren't any drier than they were in 2000," Mr. Chapin of is fond of saying, "but there are a lot more people with matches."
con·cept: The NYTimes > Campaign 2004 > Ready or Not … Electronic Voting Goes National