Can We Triage Electronic Voting?

The nation is one day away from the conclusion of a hotly contested mid-term election season. What we can say is that many eyes will be watching the outcome-some with partisan hopes and others to monitor the use of electronic voting systems. The National Committee for Voting Integrity (NCVI) is leading one of the many efforts to ease the use of electronic voting this election season by providing recommendations to assist voters and election administrators for the November 7, 2006 election.

The guidance was developed with the assistance of the Brennan Center for Justice and addresses the use of electronic voting systems in the upcoming national elections. NCVI and the Brennan Center warn that the recent implementation of electronic voting systems will make ensuring that all votes are accurately counted a difficult and challenging task. The ad hoc measures of thousand of citizens, groups, and nonprofits have filled the role of the federal government in trying to facilitate the implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

HAVA became law in 2002 and established a new federal government agency the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which mandated statewide-centralized voter registration databases, new voter identification requirements for first time voters, and authorized almost $4 billion to help states with election management and reform measures. Following the passage of HAVA, in FY 2003 Congress appropriated $1.3 billion for the Government Services Administration (GSA) to distribute to states in advance of the EAC being established, this was very interesting. The GSA began sending payments to states before there were new federal standards to guide the development of reliable voting systems or a testing and certification process to weed out bad voting machines. States were left to their own devices to interpret the meaning of the disability access and language minority provisions of the law. Manufacturers were more than willing to act in the role of regulatory agency by deciphering HAVA's voting technology requirements for their customers. The industry quickly said that HAVA outlawed the use of all punchcard, and lever voting machines, and that they had to be replaced by direct recording electronic (DRE) (aka touch-screen), or optical-scan voting systems. In fact, the law required that each polling location have a disability and language assessable voting system for voters that needed them so that they could cast a ballot unassisted. Everything involving the transition of voting systems went like clockwork -- $1.3 billion in funding and only a handful of electronic voting technology vendors, what could go wrong -- computer technologists.

Rarely have academics come so quickly over their ivory towers to enter a public debate -- it probably occurred when the first Stanford University or MIT computer science professor went to the polls to cast a ballot and found a paperless DRE voting system. The very polite and patient poll worker explained to the bewildered computer science Ph.D. that her vote was saved in three different places in the voting machine's memory and was safe. The rest is history -- but until that moment no one had ever heard of the computer technologists' voting lobby, however, by election season 2006 they have made their mark in electronic voting system reform.

One of the many efforts lead by and involving computer technologists is the work of NCVI and the Brennan Center who have collaborated to produce recommendations to help voters and election officials for the November 7, 2006 election. We recommended that election officials should be prepared well in advance to manage foreseeable failures. We said particular focus should be placed on possible remedial steps that may be taken to minimize the loss of votes due to complications with implementation of statewide-centralized voter registration databases and/or electronic poll books, as well as the casting of ballots on touch-screen DRE voting machines or paper optical-scan voting systems. We also made recommendations on how to make the use of optical-scan voting systems as effective as possible.

We concluded that in the long term, there must be far better security and reliability standards for electronic voting systems. We reiterate the Brennan Center's 2004 and 2006 security and reliability recommendations for these machines. We also endorse the immediate implementation of the federal laboratory accreditation process to certify all electronic voting systems to the Election Assistance Commission's 2005 Voluntary Voting System Guidelines.

We advised that Election Administrators who use statewide-centralized voter registration databases to immediately implement the recommendations of the Association for Computing Machinery's US Public Policy Committee's Study Of Accuracy, Privacy, Usability, Security, and Reliability Issues, as well as the Brennan Center's 2006 recommendations on the Database Matching and Verification Processes for Voter Registration. Further, election administrators who rely on automated central tabulating processes for optical-scan ballot systems should immediately evaluate those systems for accuracy, reliability, and security.

The document is the second set of recommendations prepared by NCVI to aid voters and election administrators with new electronic voting systems. The first set of recommendations was prepared in advance of the 2004 General Election.

Fundamentally, high tech voting has one almost insurmountable hurdle-- voting in public elections occurs once or maybe twice a year. We are not getting the experience with new voting technology that would help to find problems and push re-engineering improvements. As a result gamblers in Las Vegas have more reliable machines than voters do in the polling place. The outcome of such a rapid change in voting systems has been controversy that is fueled by failures in the election process for voters. The controversy may result in a public wholesale rejection of electronic voting, which would be unfortunate. There are many things that electronic voting systems could do to improve the process for a lot of voters who would otherwise not have an independent and accessible voting experience. For these voters and the sake of our constitutional democratic republic we must have better voting technology standards, a voter verified means of capturing the voter's intent in an unalterable format, that is then used in a mandatory routine statistically relevant audit supported by aggressive implementation of testing and certification requirements.

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