Exclusive: E-voting puts vote accuracy at risk in four key states
In four battleground states – Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado – glitches in electronic-voting machines could produce erroneous tallies that would be difficult to detect and potentially impossible to correct, a Monitor analysis finds.
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More than 1,800 voting machine problems were reported to election protection hotlines during the 2008 general election, according to Verified Voting. Such election failures mattered far less in 2008 because Barack Obama won by a landslide. But this year, the loser might be likely to demand a recount if the winning margin is small. In states that still use Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines – touch-screen voting equipment that lacks any paper verification – that could be a problem. [Editor's note: The original stated the full name of DREs incorrectly.]Skip to next paragraph
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"Without a paper trail there's no opportunity to check, so then you just have to rely on faith that the software is functioning properly and capturing votes properly," says Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting. "Maybe the machine is working OK right now. But if there is a bug or glitch, there's nothing to go back to."
After the controversy over "hanging chads" in Florida in the 2000 election, touch-screen e-voting machines proliferated nationwide as the Help America Vote Act of 2002 helped states pay for new equipment. Most states have since replaced e-systems that lack paper verification with paper ballots counted by optical scanners. While scanners can also fail, the paper ballots are there to be recounted.
But 17 states still use paperless DREs, according to Verified Voting. Among those, four are expected to see election results close enough to potentially demand a recount.
"Most of the country has gone to some sort of paper-based optical or electronic system," says Peter Lichtenheld, vice president of operations for Austin-based Hart InterCivic, one of four major voting machine companies in the US. "In counties that have decided to stay with DREs, they've put in people and procedures to make them more secure."
For example, most states now run preelection software tests on the machines to verify that they are counting correctly. The machines are "sealed" against tampering and, increasingly, they are monitored by surveillance cameras even in off-use periods. Memory cards in the machines should retain votes, even in a power failure, but have not always done so.
To critics, however, reliance on electronic methods alone as a backup means that the machines are, in essence, checking themselves. Only a paper document checked by the voter ensures that the vote was recorded correctly and is immune to system failures or even cyberattack.
- In Pennsylvania, 50 of 68 counties have paperless equipment as their standard voting system, Verified Voting data show. Those machines serve some 7 million of about 8.5 million registered voters statewide.
- In Virginia, 127 of 135 counties use paperless DREs, accounting for 3.7 million of the state’s 5 million registered voters, according to Verified Voting.
- Colorado is shifting to mail-in paper ballots, but the transition isn't complete. Jefferson County, the state’s fourth most populous, is using paperless DREs as well as mailed ballots. So many of its 320,000-plus "active" registered voters will vote on the machines – more than enough to tip a tight race, says Ms. Smith of Verified Voting.
- In Florida, all counties are required by law to have paper backups for their voting machines by 2014. Even so, a small but potentially significant number of disabled voters statewide still will use paperless touch-screen machines this year. Although only a few thousand votes may be cast on those "accessibility" machines, it could still be enough to throw the race if the state's vote tally were to end up as close as it was in the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush controversially won by 537 votes.