E-voting machines' confidence gap
Imagine your bank teller accepting a deposit and then saying, "Oh, you don't need a receipt. It's all in the computer." On Nov. 2, that's essentially what millions of citizens will be told when they cast ballots on new electronic voting machines. Forty-two states are poised to use this latest technology, but with only 28 days left until the presidential election, some states are still debating whether to provide a paper confirmation of each voter's choices.Skip to next paragraph
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Potential problems with electronic voting - and very real mishaps - have gained more public attention in recent months, and manufacturers and election officials have tried to play down concerns. But some state officials have also chosen to build in more safeguards to ensure that the electronic vote data, if corrupted either accidentally or maliciously, have a backup. That means one thing: a paper record.
Last week, California passed a law mandating a paper trail on all its e-voting machines by 2006. The same week, a federal appeals court revived a Florida lawsuit that requires voter- verified paper ballots on touchscreen machines (although it may not be resolved before Nov. 2), and a number of states are either holding off buying the new machines or weighing whether to essentially ban paperless voting after the presidential election if they already use them.
A suit brought against the Maryland Board of Elections, however, alleging that machines made by Diebold Election Systems could not provide "a secure and accurate vote," was rejected last month.
Even as computer scientists knock heads with vendors and election officials, e-voting critics are wary of introducing new regulations so late in the day.
"There comes a point when I think there are more security risks to starting to change things around than go with what we have," says Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, who helped bring the security flaws to light.
What concerns critics is the integrity and accuracy of the vote. In a close race, where recounts might be required, most electronic voting machines could not produce a voter-verified ballot printout. And even without recounts, where the voting appears to go smoothly, there is no way of knowing that e-votes have been correctly tabulated, they say.
Electronic voting made its biggest leap onto the scene after the 2000 presidential election got ensnared in punch cards and dangling chads. The 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), pushed through in the wake of that fiasco, provided $3.9 billion in federal funding for such things as helping states and local governments find alternatives to punch cards.
Although many districts quickly adopted electronic machines as the best option - 50 million voters or a third of the electorate will use them next month - the technology remains controversial. So much so that two bills were introduced to amend HAVA and make a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) a federal requirement for electronic voting machines. Both bills languish in committee.
A VVPAT would work much like the journal receipt on old cash registers, where a roll of paper under a glass or plastic shield records the transaction. With an electronic-voting machine, the voter would look through a window at their vote printed on paper and verify that it matches what he or she has chosen on the screen before hitting the vote button. That paper would then drop into a lockbox. In the event of a machine breakdown or recount, separate paper receipts would exist for each ballot cast.