e-voting, or voting through ATM-like electronic terminals. Specifically, it will discuss the pro and cons of the election process moving into an electronic age away from the "hanging chads." It will include issues of security such as hacking and vote count integrity. E-voting is a controversial new way for many people to cast their ballots, but it is not foolproof. E-voting faces challenges on many counts, and it will be interesting to see how the terminals work in the upcoming Presidential election in November. Voting electronically sounds like a good, workable idea, but is it really?
The 2000 Presidential election and the fiasco in Florida's vote count were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to voting in America. Today, voters are faced with more than punch cards. They are faced with "e-voting." What is e-voting? E-voting is a more practical way of voting by using electronic touch-screens or optical-scanning systems that record the vote when a voter touches the screen, clicks a mouse, or marks a ballot than can be optically scanned. The systems work electronically, and votes should be tallied almost instantaneously. The machines automatically show each office or item on the ballot as the voter enters their vote, and "If a voter makes a mistake, such as selecting two candidates for the same office, the computer points out this error and allows the voter to correct it" (Bonsor). These machines eliminate the inefficiencies of punch card and manual voting, and they are quicker for voters to use, so polling places can handle more voters in less time. In addition, they bring voting to many more people, including the blind and non-English speakers, for there are screens that talk back and screens in other languages. These are important considerations in a country where so many minorities still flock every year. If we want voting to be open to everyone, then ballots and voting areas must also be accessible to all.
Proponents of e-voting cite a number of reasons this technology needs to be implemented and implemented quickly. These machines make voting much quicker, and the touch-screens are simple to use. Voters do not have to spend as much time waiting in line at polling places to cast their vote, and this could attract more voter turnout, especially during large elections. They are also much more accurate than the mechanical machines used by so many states. There are no levers to pull, no cards to line up, and mistakes can be corrected if the machines are the optical-scan variety - the ballots can simply be rescanned. In addition, these systems have been in use in several foreign countries, such as the Netherlands and Brazil for several years, and while they have had a few problems, the systems overall have been successful and popular. Many proponents also point to e-voting as the precursor to voting at home via the Internet. Internet voting would open up voting to many who find it difficult to get to a polling place now, and "would allow people to vote from their home or work computer - or any computer with Internet access" (Bonsor). While there are certainly many security issues to work out with Internet voting, it would be quick, painless, and would probably result in many more people taking the time to cast their vote.
While there are many persuasive reasons for using the E-voting technology, there are quite a few compelling reasons not to use the technology until some issues have been addressed. One of the major issues facing the technology is the amazing lack of security surrounding many of the leadings systems. One of the most notorious for their lack of security is Diebold, manufacturer of the AccuVote touch-screen voting machine that is extremely popular around the country. An activist for voting, Bev Harris made a startling discovery one day online. "Harris found about 40,000 unprotected computer files. They included source code for Diebold's [...] voting machine, program files for its Global Election Management System tabulation software, and a Texas voter-registration list with voters' names and addresses" (Zetter). Amazingly, these files were open to anyone with enough wherewithal to discover them. Even more amazing, Harris found what seemed to be live tallies of California voting that were not supposed to be released until the polls closed. It seemed as if Diebold, or anyone else with brains enough to hack into the system, could actually modify the vote count as it occurred. "Harris discovered that she cold enter the vote database using Microsoft Access - a standard program often bundled with Microsoft Office - and change votes without leaving a trace" (Zetter). Unfortunately, vendors seem to be ignoring the problem, and one expert sees the entire system as too flawed for current use. "Aviel D. Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, told the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. 'Not only have the vendors not implemented security safeguards that are possible, they have not even correctly implemented the ones that are easy'" (Yen). Obviously, the lack of security was a boon to any computer hacker who hoped to create havoc in the voting system - they had an open door, and the manufacturers do not seem to be closing it.
In addition, some locales trying out the new systems have run in to a variety of problems that need to be worked out. In Orange County, CA, 184 polling places returned votes that were wrong, because there was more than one ballot style loaded in the computers, and the incorrect ballot style was displayed in these polling places (Foley). Most experts agree that the system needs a viable paper trail for double-checking results for the systems to truly be effective, but currently Nevada is the only state that expects to have that paper trail fully in place before the November elections ("Paper Trail").
However, open security and hacking into the computer systems of manufacturers is not the only way voting can be tampered with. Some of the voting companies have had problems with their employees' integrity. "A few voting company employees have been implicated in bribery or kickback schemes involving election officials" (Zetter). In addition, there are questions about the integrity of those who own and manage many of the companies. Some of them are foreigners, some of them are ex-felons, and some of them have strong ties to specific political parties and candidates. In addition, some have been indicted for such unsavory activities as bribery and kickbacks (Zetter). This is quite distressing in an industry where integrity and accuracy are two of the most important aspects of the machines these companies produce and sell.
Why are we using e-voting terminals anyway? After the 2000 Presidential elections, voting technology was severely questioned. While the e-voting technology had been around for decades, it was expensive and largely untried. However, in 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which created a fund to help states upgrade to new, more sophisticated voting systems. This was mainly in reaction to the Florida 2000 elections, where the term "hanging chad" became a household phrase, and the results of the election were up in the air for weeks. Hanging chads were the bits of punch card left when a voter punched a vote with a stylus, either accidentally or on purpose. Thousands of ballots were counted and recounted by hand, while counters attempted to discover, through hanging chad and other means, what the voter really meant to do when they cast their ballot. Some of this was purely guesswork, which is why the issue of electronic voting machines became so hot so quickly. In the November 2004 Presidential election, about 29% of Americans will use the new touch-screen technology to cast their vote (Reuters). However, the results may still be up in the air, as they were in 2000, if manufacturers cannot effectively protect their machines from tampering and questioning of their accuracy.
Are e-voting machines a threat to democracy? Many believe they are a vital threat because of their lack of security, the inability to know whether many of them are recording votes accurately, and the lack of security over who owns and distributes voting machines. While no vote is absolutely foolproof, security measures have evolved that can help ensure that our vote today is as honest as it can possibly be. Currently, the many questions surrounding the e-voting technology remove some of the feeling of safety that surrounds our voting system. Computer hackers who have the ability to break into even some of the most sophisticated computer systems can tamper with votes electronically. The accuracy of the machines cannot be measured, and there is no way to recall votes that are entered digitally. (However, manufacturer Diebold includes an internal printer in their machines that can print out results if there is a question [Reuters]). What all of this means for democracy is that the integrity of our voting system, while never perfect, could be far more at risk. If…