Paperless Voting Machines Are Not Fit for Democracy

The disputed election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District has ramifications beyond who ultimately occupies that seat in the 110th Congress. Though Democrat Christine Jennings has challenged the election in state court and filed a formal contest of the election with the Clerk of the U.S. House, the new leadership has made it clear that Republican Vern Buchanan will be sworn in when the session begins on January 4th.

Rep. Rush Holt has announced that he will file a Parliamentary Inquiry as soon as the new Congress convenes, clarifying that the seating of a Member-elect does not prejudice a pending contest over final right to the seat."

At issue are over 18,000 undervotes – votes that were lost or never recorded at all on the ES&S iVotronic touchscreen voting machines used for early and Election Day voting in Sarasota County, the largest of the five counties in the 13th District. After a mandatory recount, Buchanan held a razor-thin 369-vote margin of victory over Jennings but there has been no satisfactory resolution of the implausibly high undervote rate on the iVotronics.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the legal action and election contest, the experience of Sarasota County in 2006 should serve to focus the larger debate about the appropriate use of computerized equipment in the election process.

There should no longer be any question that the use of entirely software dependent voting systems, which, like the ‘paperless’ touchscreen machines used in Sarasota County, provide no independent means of verification, is unacceptable in a democracy that depends on transparency and accountability in the election process.

There seems to be little doubt that federal legislation requiring the minimum safeguard of a voter verified paper audit trail and mandatory hand counted audits will pass in the coming months, but many look at the situation in Sarasota County and question whether this is an adequate response.

How We Got Here

While direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems have been in use in some jurisdictions in the country since the 1980s, their use has increased significantly since 2000. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002 set in motion the most dramatic change in voting technology in the nation’s history, with more than a third of American voters using new equipment in 2006, and many states and counties choosing to implement paperless DRE systems. These changes have been accompanied by a growing awareness and concern among citizens about the accuracy and integrity electronic voting in general and DREs in particular.

Facing what seemed to be an inevitable wave of touchscreen machines, the initial response of computer scientists and election reform activists was to require that these machines produce a contemporaneous paper record that the voter could verify before casting a vote electronically.

This “voter verified paper audit trail