E-Voting: No Fix Yet

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Troubled Past

In 2002, Congress provided $300 million to states to replace troublesome punch-card and lever machines with new voting systems. Many states chose touch-screen voting machines, which vendors claimed were faster, easier to use, and more reliable than other voting methods.

Then in 2003, reports surfaced criticizing machines made by Diebold Election Systems for numerous security problems, and arguing that testing and certification procedures for evaluating all voting machines were flawed. For example, according to security researchers who viewed the Diebold source code, the database of votes in the Diebold tabulation software was not password-protected, so a hacker could have manipulated the vote totals and altered the log to erase evidence of fraud. Such a problem could be discovered if more-stringent certification methods were used.

Though touch-screen machines have worked well in many places, there were widespread reports of mechanical problems with the machines prior to and on election day, delayed delivery of results, and instances where employees of e-voting machine makers upgraded software or otherwise modified the systems on election day, which could have introduced bad code that changed the results, either accidentally or on purpose.

Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan news site on election reform.
Photograph: Katherine Lambert
In some cases, election officials even allowed employees of e-voting machine vendors to help process vote totals on election night. Criticism of such practices is forcing officials to rethink their relationship with e-voting firms. Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that provides news of election reform, says, "I think you're starting to see state and local governments say...'Wait a minute. We've given up too much control, and we know too little about these systems that we, as election officials, are on the hook for at the end of the day.'"

In 2004, public outcry against touch-screen machines and the call for paper trails to bolster the integrity of voting results reached its height. That caused many states to mandate paper trails or to instead adopt optical-scan systems, which use a paper ballot that voters mark.

Each kind of system continues to be deployed. Political consulting firm Election Data Services, which tracks voting-machine usage nationwide, estimates that 40 percent of voters will cast ballots on touch-screen machines this year, and that about 42 percent will cast them either on optical-scan machines or on traditional paper ballots. Others will cast ballots on different systems, such as punch-card machines, which are still used in at least two states.

And at least 30 percent of U.S. counties have changed voting equipment since 2004, so this year's election marks the first use for lots of new hardware on a large scale. That is not good news, according to Kimball Brace, director of Election Data Services, which tracks voting-machine use. "History has shown that the first time you implement new voting equipment, you're much more likely to have a problem."

Maryland's September primary was a case in point. Problems with the new e-voting systems due to human and mechanical errors were so severe that the governor called for a return to paper ballots in November's general election.

Also, the security of touch-screen machines--and even of optical-scan units--remains a significant concern.

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