02 March 2006

Do You Know How Your Vote Will Be Counted?

Washington Spectator - March 2, 2006

The troubling truth about voting in America today is that a majority of the electorate casts their ballots on computers that run software that is hidden from public view and lacks any independent means of verification. The process by which our votes are cast and counted is controlled by private corporations to an extent that threatens the foundations of democracy.

Last September, the Government Accountability Office released a report on the security and reliability of electronic voting machines. The report, which detailed the findings of a nine-month study, said that "concerns about electronic voting machines have been realized and have caused problems with recent elections, resulting in the loss and miscount of votes." The GAO reported that it had confirmed instances of "weak security controls, system design flaws, inadequate system version control, inadequate security testing, incorrect system configuration, poor security management, and vague or incomplete voting system standards."

While acknowledging that efforts were under way to improve the situation, the report warned that "these actions are unlikely to have a significant effect in the 2006 federal election cycle." Not exactly reassuring.

And the situation has hardly improved in the months since. In many states, it is still unclear what kind of voting machines will be used in primaries only a few months away. Running elections has always been a daunting and largely unappreciated job performed by state and county officials. But the challenges they face in 2006 are unprecedented, and many have their fingers crossed hoping their experiments with voting technology will work out.

In the wake of the 2000 election debacle, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which authorized $3.8 billion to help states upgrade voting equipment and establish statewide voter registration databases. HAVA established the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which was given the task of developing guidelines to assist states in spending federal funds on voting systems and with establishing a new process for certifying voting equipment.

All this was supposed to have happened in time for the 2004 elections, but George W. Bush didn't nominate the EAC commissioners until the fall of 2003, and Congress appropriated just a fraction of the agency's intended budget in its first fiscal year. As a result, new guidelines were only released in December 2005 and plans for the new testing and certification process are just now taking shape.

With all the delays, almost every state applied for a waiver of the original 2004 deadline for HAVA compliance, until the first federal election in 2006. While some states long ago completed their voting system upgrades, many are still scrambling to meet the requirements.

A Boon for the Voting Biz —HAVA marked the first time that the federal government had ever provided funding for the administration of elections, and it was recognized as an unprecedented sales opportunity for the voting industry. With such an opportunity unlikely to occur again, there was little incentive to develop "better" machines and every incentive to sell as many machines as possible, especially if those machines required expensive ongoing programming and maintenance. Voting machine manufacturers were eager to promote Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines, particularly the new "touch-screen" models, as the solution to all the problems ever faced by an election official. Few of those officials had the technological or financial resources to evaluate, independently, the merits of the industry's multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, and officials in many states erroneously believed that HAVA required them to replace all of their voting equipment with paperless DREs.

Experience has now demonstrated what the voting industry no doubt knew in 2002: elections using DREs are significantly more expensive—and therefore more lucrative for vendors—than those using paper ballots.

And while they're more expensive, they are not necessarily better. Even before HAVA set off a spending frenzy for new equipment, computer scientists and public interest groups were voicing serious criticism of electronic voting machines. In 2003, Johns Hopkins and Rice University researchers concluded that the software used in electronic voting systems lacked "even the most minimal security standards," and warned that "as a society, we must carefully consider the risks inherent in electronic voting, as it places our very democracy at risk." That same year, ninety scientists from universities and laboratories across the nation signed a "Resolution on Electronic Voting," stating that "computerized voting equipment is inherently subject to programming error, equipment malfunction, and malicious tampering."

YOUR INVISIBLE VOTE—Fundamental to the argument against electronic voting is that there is no opportunity to observe the counting of votes. When using DREs, the recording and counting of votes is performed by software—software that is considered "proprietary" by the voting machine vendors, and that is therefore kept secret even from election officials. Not only is the software secret, but the process by which it is tested and the results of that testing are also secret. The laboratories that test the software and hardware are paid by the vendors, but of course all these financial transactions are—you guessed it—secret.

So perhaps its not surprising that there are hundreds of reported incidences of malfunctioning electronic voting machines in every election cycle—and those are just the errors that have been identified. After all, we are talking about computers. And they are computers that sit in warehouses for 364 days a year and then face maximum use for thirteen hours in an election. If my laptop freezes, I risk losing unsaved changes to whatever I'm writing. When an electronic voting machine malfunctions, it is the integrity of democracy that is lost. The absence of a complete meltdown of the system is little comfort. Electronic voting is inherently non-transparent. You simply have to trust the machines.

In November 2004, over 50 million Americans—almost 40 percent of all voters—cast their ballots on machines that offered no independent means of verification. There's no way to know if their votes were recorded as the voter intended.

THE FIGHT FOR REFORM—Before the ink on HAVA was dry, legislation was being written at the federal level to amend it so that safeguards could be put in place against the demonstrated security risks posed by electronic voting. In particular Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) introduced the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, a bill that would mandate that all voting systems produce or require the use of a permanent paper record of every vote. It would also require a random hand-counted audit of 2 percent of the ballots cast in federal elections as back-up verification for the accuracy of electronic tabulation. Holt's bill would also prohibit the use of undisclosed software and wireless-communication devices in voting machines.

But even though the bill has over 160 bipartisan co-sponsors, Representative Bob Ney (R-OH), until recently the powerful chairman of the House Administration Committee, had kept it buried without a hearing for three years, along with every other election reform proposal. Ney, one of the principal authors of HAVA, was recently forced to resign his chairmanship as a result of his link to the Abramoff investigation. Election reform activists are hopeful that that the new chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) will be more open to reform. Ehlers was responsible for the language in HAVA requiring improved voting system testing standards and certification—improvements that have not yet been implemented due to all the delays.

While efforts to provide election safeguards have been stalled at the federal level, significant legislation has been successful in many states. Over half the states now require a voter-verified paper record of every vote, and a dozen states have provisions for a mandatory additional hand count of a percentage of the votes. Similar legislation is pending in several states during the current legislative session. Several have also addressed the problem of proprietary voting software by requiring at least a limited disclosure of source codes. Most of these new laws take effect in 2006.

DRAMAS ARE UNFOLDING—A bafflingly complex situation is developing in the country right now as this year's elections grow near. It has arisen as a result of intersecting federal mandates and new state laws; untested voting equipment; inevitable partisan politics; and, not least, a testing and certification process that is heavily influenced by the vendors that fund it. There is a drama unfolding in every state, with many states trying out their new voting systems by "beta-testing" it, while in other states it is still unclear what equipment voters will see when they go to the polls.


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