E-voting: It's Here -- But Are we Ready?
It was not democracy's finest hour, and like many disasters, it spawned calls for radical reform. Electronic voting was the watchword of the day. By embracing the latest voting technologies, we would enter a brave new world where voters' choices would be recorded swiftly and surely, where counts and recounts would be a snap, and where the electoral system would regain its former luster.
But even before Florida, some analysts were trying to put on the brakes. Electronic voting, and particularly its unruly cousin, Internet voting, could not be made both secure and anonymous, they said. While user-friendly, e-voting would open the door to tampering, coercion and disruption on a previously unimaginable scale.
Accessing and changing one voting machine or paper ballot, even a whole bag full, might be simple, but altering even a small percentage of votes in an election involving millions of voters and thousands of counties would pose a daunting, even insurmountable, logistical challenge. Not so electronic voting fraud. A single line of rogue computer code, jiggered, say, to switch 10 percent of "Yes" votes to "No," could alter the course of history, with no one the wiser. And there is no security fix, critics says. Bank A.T.M.s guard against similar risks with audit trails tracing transactions back through every step to their origins. But voting audits, linking individual ballots to the people who cast them, would violate the secrecy of the ballot box. Denial-of-service attacks, hacking, Trojan horses – the list of threats is long. Worst-case scenario: a terrorist group or enemy nation could bring an entire election crashing to a halt.
"E-voting requires a much greater level of security than e-commerce – it's not like buying a book over the Internet," said University of Maryland president C.D. Mote Jr., who chaired a 2001 National Science Foundation study of Internet voting. "Remote Internet voting technology will not be able to meet this standard for years to come."
Today, 1 Ĺ years after the Florida debacle, officials are moving slowly to replace outmoded election equipment with electronic technology. But they are moving. The reason is not so much Florida's Keystone Kops display, but a more systemic problem. The fact is, long before Florida, the American electoral system's dirty little secret was that it disenfranchised millions of voters. "Almost every jurisdiction is now in some way using electronic computer technology," says R. Michael Alvarez, Caltech director of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project.
Caltech President David Baltimore's "outrage" at Florida spawned the Caltech-MIT Project, says Alvarez. The project in 2001 issued a report examining different voting methods. One finding was that 2 to 2.5 percent of American ballots are spoiled or unmarked. Six million votes nationwide were lost in the Florida 2000 tally, the project reported, more than enough to swing the razor-thin contest, which was eventually handed to Bush by a divided U.S. Supreme Court.
Another impetus for change is the increase in absentee voting. Elections in the state of Oregon are now 100 percent mail-in; one-fourth of California voters mail in their ballots. The sanctity of the voting booth has already been violated.
Increasingly complex ballots are another reason to go electronic. In California, for example, officials have to contend with a dizzying array of referenda, overlapping jurisdictional boundaries and languages. L.A. County ballots come in seven tongues: English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. The cost of printing ballots, many of which will go unused and be thrown out, can be staggering.
"In Los Angeles County there are something like 10,000 different ballot faces," says Charles Stewart III, MIT director of the Caltech-MIT project. Federal legislation to fund billions of dollars of new voting equipment is before Congress; the measure, as of the end of March, was bottled up in the U.S. Senate. Civil rights proponents are battling Republicans over registration cards, which are far too reminiscent of poll taxes and licenses for their tastes, says Stewart. The Republicans are worried about voter fraud.
A California ballot proposition recently authorized the state to borrow $200 million to fund county election technology upgrades. The federal legislation would institute new voting technology standards, but it's still unclear which technology is the best. More research is needed, Stewart says.
"Nobody knows for sure which jurisdictions have which models of equipment," says Stewart, "No one has ever done an independent, Consumer Reports-style comparison of these models with eye toward reporting what works and doesn't work."
Many studies, including Caltech-MIT, have dubbed the punch-card the bad boy of balloting. Florida's nemesis, and father to the hanging/pregnant/dimpled chad, punch-cards produce twice as many spoiled and mismarked ballots as their competitors, Caltech-MIT found. (Other estimates say punch-cards waste three times more ballots than the alternatives). Punch-card ballots were nevertheless used by 31 to 34 percent of registered voters in 1998, including virtually all of Los Angeles County, the nation's largest election jurisdiction.
A series of successful post-Florida legal challenges by the American Civil Liberties Union and others made sure the punch-card ballot is on its way to the scrap heap of history, some legal experts say.
"Florida is planning to replace its voting system by 2002, Georgia by 2004, and California by 2004," says Dan Tokaji of the ACLU of Southern California. "There's a general awareness we do have a problem."
However, the stalled federal legislation has a punch-card exemption, Stewart says. Chicago recently made a multi-million investment in equipment to notify voters of punch-card mistakes in time to correct them. Obviously, officials there plan to hang on to their punch-card system.
The mechanical lever machine, used by 18.6 percent of the voters in 1998, is no longer manufactured. Breakdowns cause long lines at the polls, sending voters home without exercising their franchise. Although some companies have offered to service the machines, the fact they are no longer in production is pushing them towards extinction.
Paper ballots and manual counting, considered the most secure and error-free, are no longer considered practical, except in rural areas and small communities. Two leading contenders are vying for the new election technology crown: Optical-scan, also known as Marksense, and "Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) devices.
Optical-scan is a medium-level technology involving paper ballots with fill-in bubbles. Optical Scan is not always listed as an electronic voting technology, although the reading function is computerized. Optical-scan technology won an important endorsement from the Caltech-MIT Project, which called it the "viable alternative" to other choices. "We see room for improvement with electronic machines, particularly the newer touch screen technologies," the report's executive summary, dated March 30, 2001, said.
Try telling that to Riverside County. Calif., Registrar Mischelle Townsend, who since 1999, has been conducting the most ambitious DRE experiment in the nation. DRE records votes electronically, through a touch-screen or push-button interface. Townsends verdict on her touch-screen system: "Outstanding," both in performance and voter acceptance, she says.
And despite the obstacles, Internet voting is alive and well. Online polls have been conducted by everybody from the National Arbor Day Foundation to the Democratic National Convention 2000 to the ICANN board. (500,000 Americans cast Internet ballots in the Arbor Day Foundation's favorite tree contest, choosing the mighty oak.) And no less than the federal government has an ambitious Internet voting project in real elections underway for military and other overseas voters.
Officials are not ruling out the possibility that voters in forward-looking states such as California and Arizona, where counties have experimented with Internet voting, might qualify a ballot initiative to make online voting an option. Research is underway to make Internet voting practical. Internet maverick David Chaum is exploring ways to vote by phone and Internet.
National Science Foundation-funded researchers Hanan Samet and Leana Golubchik are working on new architectures to enable millions to send online information, such as tax returns or ballots, to a single destination at roughly the same time. Among the ideas being explored is a peer-to-peer distributed computing system similar to the Napster music download service.
Each technology has its pros and cons. In the March primary, for example, Chicago unveiled its new, improved punch-card system. Initial voter reviews were good, but it was later discovered that 6 percent of the Democratic ballots had registered no votes for governor, well below the 3 percent no-show rate found in national studies.
Not far away in Lake County, Illinois, however, a new optical-scan system designed to reduce voter error failed to count numerous votes in a hotly contested school referendum. A software consultant was blamed for hitting the wrong key, causing scanners to ignore some "yes" votes on the tax increase measure; a recount is underway.
In the end, there may be no technological bogeyman– or magic-bullet fix. The U.S. has a long tradition of electoral diversity, and of local control. Voter education and election administration can be as important as technology. What works well in an urban Illinois county could be a disaster in a rural, Southern locale.
"If you were to centralize elections statewide or nationwide, it would make it pretty easy to conduct voting fraud," says Stewart. "That would be true whether it was Internet or paper ballots."
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