Polling Chads And Fads

Electronic voting machines are replacing other technologies, but they might not be the best solution.

This year was to mark a new era of certainty for the American voting process: Punch card machines-which sparked the agony of hanging chads in the 2000 presidential election-a memory. Rows of glistening new voting machines waiting to record ballots without mistake.

New standards, new technology and more money made possible by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which provides funds to states to replace punch card voting systems, would coalesce to permanently exorcise the ghost of Florida. The deadline for all this to happen was Jan. 1, 2006.

County election officials went on a buying spree, many favoring direct-recording electronic voting systems. Similar to automatic teller machines, these systems promise accuracy and convenience. Voters can change their ballots before casting them. Election administrators no longer have to deal with cumbersome paper and the logistics of printing and transporting ballots-like the time weather disrupted the 2005 mayoral election ballot counting in Los Angeles because fog grounded transport helicopters. Time to bring voting into the 21st century along with everything else, many said.

Electronic voting systems faced their first big test in the November 2004 election. More than 30 million voters pressed their fingers to pixels on liquid crystal display screens. In heavily scrutinized Florida and elsewhere, the vote went mostly well; irregularities were mild and did not exceed margins of victory. That wasn't the case in Carteret County, N.C. Poll workers monitoring the 10-year-old electronic voting machines didn't know that a flashing message meant the memory chip was full, and more than 4,400 votes went unrecorded. Poll officials relied on a system that should have been updated to accept more than 10,000 ballots, but was not, according to Dublin, Calif.-based manu-facturer UniLect Corp. The system "did exactly what it was programmed to do," says UniLect's president, Jack Gerbel. "It was perfect."

In the hotly contested competition for North Carolina agriculture commissioner, the vanished 4,400 votes were enough to send candidates into a months-long spiral of thrusting and parrying before the board of elections and in superior court. Rather than risk letting the final outcome be decided on the basis of voter affidavits gathered in Carteret County, the incumbent conceded the race to his challenger. It wasn't the presidential election, or even a federal election, but it could have been.

The most accurate way to tabulate votes is to hand count paper ballots, according to research by the California and Massachusetts institutes of technology. (A close second is the optically scanned bubble sheets that every standardized test-taker is familiar with, a voting technology that gained widespread traction in the 1990s.)

"When something is very simple, it's hard to hack it [or] create bugs," says Donald Moynihan, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Complexity adds opportunities for things to go wrong, not just from known threats such as hacking, but also from system components that interact in unexpected ways. Complexity is everywhere, Moynihan says, adding that risk is mitigated by planning for failure recovery rather than trying to build a perfect system. Perfect systems are impossible. Electronic voting machines are especially brittle because there's no manual backup if they fail.

After the 2000 presidential election mess in Florida, people-including members of Congress-were hardly in a mood to grapple with problems posed by unknown variables. "Everybody felt that [electronic voting systems] were the solution because they were the latest [thing]," says Stephen Ansolabehere, an MIT professor of political science.

Especially with the beacon of e-government bright in their minds, many officials assumed that new technology would cure their election system problems, which had been reduced to the catchphrase of "hanging chad."

It wasn't until after the Help America Vote Act cleared the president's desk that doubts about U.S. voting systems began to resurface. A throng of anti-electronic voting system activists loudly protested potential security flaws in manufacturers' voting software and demanded that every machine print paper receipts of voters' intentions. In case of an election dispute, they argued, paper receipts, not the electronic tally, should be the official record. "If you need paper as a backup, why not just start with the paper?" says Pam Smith, nationwide coordinator of VerifiedVoting.org. The California-based nonprofit campaigns for what it calls voter-verifiable audit trails-mandatory paper receipts attached to electronic systems-but says optical scanners are the best existing method.

But activists and state lawmakers promoting printed voter receipts might be falling into the same trap that led to widespread adoption of electronic voting systems in the first place. There is no panacea. A computer could easily print a paper receipt that accurately records a voter's intentions and electronically records a different set of votes, Ansolabehere notes. Moreover, printed receipts are a check against incorrect results only if voters actually examine them. A 2004 survey of Nevada voters found that just 31 percent verified their entire paper ballot, although an additional 22 percent said they checked most of the paper receipt.

The physical reality of paper ballots also is a challenge. Nevada, which mandates that county registrars count 1 percent of the paper receipts during every election, is proof that in the event of a contested election, manual recounts could take weeks, not days, to complete, says electionline.org, a nonpartisan election information clearinghouse. Printed paper receipts aren't designed to be counted quickly by hand. "They are engineered to be read by voters as they cast electronic votes," an October 2005 electionline.org report notes. In Clark County, Nev., it took four hours to manually verify 64 votes, a pace of about four minutes per ballot.

Plus, paper receipts could become a new security risk to the sanctity of the vote. "Unscrupulous voters could easily create their own receipts, substitute them in the ballot box, and then later claim the machines malfunctioned," says an electronic voting system report prepared by RABA Technologies for the state of Maryland.

"Sometimes the newest and most advanced machine may have weaknesses that don't make it optimal for the job," Moynihan says. It's an attitude out of step with the faith that government, especially the federal government, places in technology, however. Information technology is at the heart of federal attempts to reshape itself, and in general Americans are technology optimists.

But another distinctive American trait-love of convenience-might reshape the debate. Voting takes place less and less on a particular day as more states allow excuse-free absentee balloting. In the future, the idea of validating a piece of paper in a polling place won't be relevant to the way most people vote, MIT's Ansolabehere says. Optically scanned ballots are today's technology of choice for absentee voting, but widespread absentee balloting also could open the floodgates to Internet voting, "which is much harder to secure than electronic voting," he adds. That also means the current debate soon could fade into obsolescence with another, newer technology.

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