A federal judge is threatening New York election officials with jail because the state still hasn't switched to electronic voting machines (the path set by Congress in 2002). That makes it the nation's sole holdout, but also puts it in a position to learn from everyone else's many mistakes.
Over the last five years, the country has seen a monumental shift in the mechanics of voting, but not always a smooth one. It was prompted by the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, which two years later spurred Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act.
The law provides federal dollars to help states switch to electronic voting – a method meant to be less confusing and more reliable than such systems as Florida's troublesome paper punch-card and "butterfly" ballots. (The technology is also intended to make voting accessible to millions of disabled Americans.)
Electronic voting, which includes touch screens and optical scanners that read ballots, have helped reduce human error in the voting process. In 2006, about 1 million potentially invalid votes were saved because technology alerted voters to errors, such as double voting, and gave them the opportunity to correct them.
But reliability remains an open question. In mid-December, Colorado's secretary of state decertified three of the four electronic voting equipment brands used in the state because of security and accuracy issues. One model produced a 1 percent error rate in counting ballots. That doesn't sound like much, but it could swing a close election.
Earlier last month, Ohio's secretary of state recommended replacing touch-screen machines (only about two years old), though she didn't go so far as to decertify them. A study had found the machines are not secure enough against manipulation.
Last summer, California's top election official banned three of four electronic models in the state – except those for disabled voters – after a study found the machines vulnerable to hackers.
And Florida is converting to optical-scan machines that ensure a paper trail in case of electronic failure. Without a paper trail, it's hard to know what happened in an electronic breakdown.
The security vulnerabilities need to be addressed, but can that be done in time for the 2008 elections?
States must work with vendors to reduce these risks, but it was a rush to electronic voting that caused some of them, and a hasty but imperfect solution could do more harm than good. New machines mean new testing, security measures, voter education, and poll-worker training.
Right now, however, states can greatly reduce security risks by improving procedure safeguards. They can commit to routine, transparent, and random audits comparing paper and electronic voting records. They can move away from centralized vote counting, which is more vulnerable to manipulation. They can randomly test voting machines on Election Day itself.
Yet, few jurisdictions have implemented these and other security measures, according to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Trust in the integrity of the system is everything in voting, and states must do everything they can to work out the security kinks.