Touch-and-Go Elections: The perils of electronic voting
Thursday, November 16
The 2006 midterm elections are concluding without a major hitch-- while some House races still hang in the balance, the nation has managed to avoid the large-scale disputed outcomes of Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. Yet this veneer of electoral transparency is actually more akin to an iron curtain of unaccountability. After all, why is it that only about 1 in every 4 voters were confident their votes would be accurately counted on Nov. 7?
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in Georgia. In 2002, Georgia became the first state to exclusively use touch-screen voting equipment, purchasing 19,000 machines for the cool price of $54 million. The midterm elections that year happened to coincide with a massive upset that unseated the longtime Senator Max Cleland and Governor Roy Barnes. They both received 6 percent fewer votes than what pre-election polls had predicted. Barnes, for instance, was slated to walk away with an 11-point lead. But after the electoral tables turned, Georgian voters' ire arose from their inability to have a recount of the suspect elections. A recount is impossible without a paper trail.
A full recount should be available whenever races are so close and contentious. But without any verifiable paper trail, a recount simply consists of pushing a few buttons and having the electronic voting machines spit out the same numbers they did on Election Day. When it comes to elections, circuitry is anything but a tabula rasa.
This problem isn't isolated to Georgia. About 80 percent of Americans had their votes counted by electronic machines during these last elections. Recounts aside, these machines create a litany of dilemmas in the electoral process. They frequently break down. Such machines are known to flip votes from one candidate to another and sometimes don't record votes at all, as happened in Florida this year. The horrifying part is that there's no way to sift through all the errors and uncover the voter's original intent. When an electronic glitch happens, the voting record permanently changes.
But why can't this problem be resolved? Simply put, the public can't examine the very software they use to vote. In fact, such scrutiny is illegal. The voting software that runs on the electronic machines is considered "proprietary information" by the companies that produce it, therefore no one, not even election officials, can access it. Slot machines in Las Vegas are inspected to a greater degree than our voting machines are.
Since voting machine manufacturers seem to have proprietary ownership of our electoral process, it goes without saying that they should be as apolitical as possible. But that is not the case. In September of 2003, Walden O'Dell, the chairman of the board and CEO of one of the largest such companies Diebold, wrote that he would be "helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President." And the third largest voting machine manufacturer in the United States, Sequoia Voting Systems, is actually owned by a Venezuelan company with ties to Hugo Chavez's government.
Electoral problems, partisan ownership, accountability, and transparency aside, security is an underlying vulnerability. Electronic voting machines are about as secure as a new inmate in a maximum-security prison. The machines can be easily hacked in under a minute from within a voting booth, as a team of Princeton researchers has demonstrated. And someone doesn't even need access to the machine itself to alter an election. Contrary to Diebold's claims, if someone obtains a memory card--the small, removable device that actually records the votes--then he can change the outcome of an election by infecting the card with a virus and installing it in the machine. When the infected card is used in a voting machine, votes will be switched from one candidate to another, and no one will be the wiser. In fact, a corrupted voting machine or memory card can easily spread the hacking virus to its voting-machine brethren. When a new, clean memory card is inserted into an infected machine, the card picks up the virus as well. Later on, the pernicious card corrupts any other voting machines it's used with, which subsequently act as latent predators for further memory cards and more machines.
The good news is that there is a relatively simple solution to all of this: electronic voting machines must be required to leave a paper trail. Luckily the House of Representatives has a bill in the works that would do just that. When individual voters can verify their choices on paper, then any electronic discrepancies can easily be resolved with a swift comparison between the two. Paper prevents electronic fraud and provides ample transparency for close senatorial elections like this year's nail biter in Virginia or a close presidential election. When it comes down to it, the most secure electoral protection the Untied States can have is only paper-thin.
And even though this year's vote counting was less fraught than in years past, the time to resolve this perilous issue is now. Congress has the political power to solve the problem. All it needs is the will. Without it, future generations might be unable to inherit our democracy.