E-voting machines' confidence gap
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But paper is unnecessary, says Bob Cohen, senior vice president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a trade group that represents many of the voting machine manufacturers. "What it does is provide a comfort level perhaps to certain voters.... Paper receipts are not a panacea by any means. They introduce a lot of challenges in the administration of elections."Skip to next paragraph
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Vendors say critics are trying to scare the public about e-voting and undermine voter confidence by suggesting hypothetical scenarios.
ITAA president Harris Miller writes, in an online article that ballots with several candidates and initiatives can generate receipts several feet long, "delaying, confusing, and frustrating the typical voter." In response, critics cite the successful September primary in Nevada, which used electronic equipment along with paper receipts.
HAVA also requires "a manual audit capacity" for voting machines. And manufacturers say their machines are already in compliance. Diebold Election Systems, the largest supplier of Direct Recording Electronic (DREs) or touch-screen machines in the US, explains on its website that "the image of each and every ballot cast on the voting station is captured, and can be anonymously reproduced on standard paper should a hard copy of ballots be required for recount purposes."
Informed computer scientists respond that if those ballot images are corrupted, either accidentally or intentionally, then all the printouts will be corrupted, too.
"If the bits in the machine are entered incorrectly in the first place, the paper would be completely consistent with the electronic record and they'd both be wrong," says Prof. Peter Neumann, principal scientist at the Computer Science Laboratory of SRI International and an authority on computer-based risks. "Given a machine that has no meaningful audit trail, you have absolutely no assurance that your vote goes in correctly."
To rely exclusively on computer software without the ability to do a ballot-by-ballot recount opens the vote to untraceable errors at best and tampering at worst, scientists contend.
An acute example of that apparent lack of transparency happened in Broward County, Florida, last January. In a special election, where 10,800 or so votes were cast on DREs, the winner squeaked through with a 12-vote margin. The machines, however, also recorded 137 blank votes. That means people went to the polling station, signed in, stood in the booth, but then chose not to vote, which would be particularly unusual in an election with only two candidates. With no paper-ballot backup, a recount was impossible - even though required by law.
Mr. Cohen puts the undercount down to human error. "[Voters] go in and, for whatever reason, they don't vote. I think a lot of things happen in the voting booth that cause the discrepancies."
A key issue for scientists is the proprietary source-code the machines use, which they argue should be made public. This would make it harder for someone to tamper with the machines and would identify potential software flaws or security weak points.
Right now, election equipment must be certified by the state and at the federal level. But a random audit of Diebold machines after the California recall election last October, for example, revealed that none of the machines' software had been certified. In April, the state introduced tougher security measures for e-voting machines.
The most accurate method is still the old hand-counted paper ballot, says Dan Seligson, editor of electionline, an online newsletter on election reform supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts. "But even then you have to trust the counters."