The urgency of e-voting reform

The 2008 primary season won’t kick off until next January, but we’re ready to offer one surefire prediction for Election Day 2008. If our elected officials don’t move quickly, millions of Americans will make their choice for the next president on unreliable electronic voting machines without any paper record of their vote. Regardless of your political leanings, that’s a troubling thought.

In the aftermath of the 2000 Florida recount, Congress approved hundreds of millions of dollars for states and counties to purchase and install electronic voting machines. The hope was that electronic voting would eliminate punch cards and hanging chads from the political lexicon and guarantee error-free elections in the future.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Since the new rules took effect, computer security experts have conducted several in-depth studies of paperless touch-screen voting machines. They have consistently found them to be vulnerable to glitches and even covert tampering. Because touch-screen voting machines record votes on a computer chip, there is no way to independently verify the results. When machines crash or malfunction, as all computers do, hundreds of votes can be irretrievably lost.
And because thousands of machines will run the same software, a bug —malicious or otherwise — can affect hundreds of thousands of votes.

These problems don’t just exist in theory. Last year, a Princeton research team created a vote-stealing virus for one of the most popular voting machine models. It spreads from machine to machine and silently alters voting records to favor a particular candidate. Of course, the Princeton team did not use the virus outside of the laboratory, but the next person to develop such a virus may not be so honest.

And e-voting glitches may have altered the outcome of last year’s race for Florida’s 13th congressional district, which was decided by just 368 votes. The paperless voting machines in Sarasota County reported that 18,000 voters had failed to vote in the congressional race despite having cast votes in other races. That represents an implausibly high “undervote” rate of 13 percent, five times the rate in neighboring counties. We will probably never know who really won the race, because there is no way to conduct a meaningful audit of the results without paper records.

If similar problems crop up in next year’s presidential election, it will throw the country into the same kind of turmoil it experienced in Florida in 2000. Fortunately, Congress is currently considering a bipartisan bill, introduced by Reps. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan majority of the House, that would  require all touch-screen voting machines in the 2008 general elections to produce a paper record of each vote.

Voters would have the opportunity to review and approve the paper record before he or she leaves the voting booth. To ensure that the paper records are not just an afterthought, the legislation mandates automatic audits of at least three percent of all votes cast. If there’s a glitch in a voting machine’s software, the audit will uncover discrepancies, and alert election officials to conduct a manual recount of the voter-verified paper ballots.

Some local election officials have objected that they won’t have enough time or money to make the required changes. The authors of the Holt-Davis bill have responded by extending key deadlines to accommodate their concerns, and they have increased funding to help states cover the cost of upgrades.

They have also given state officials wide latitude to decide on the voting technology to use in their states. Under a compromise announced last week, states will be allowed to use cheap, cash register-style thermal printers to produce a paper trail for the 2008 and 2010 elections; higher-quality printers would be required starting in 2012. Thermal printers have serious reliability problems, and in our view it would be a mistake to use them. It would be better for states facing tight deadlines to drop the use of touch-screen machines altogether and opt for the proven technology of optical-scan paper ballots, or demand that vendors provide them with high quality printers immediately.

But concerns about implementation, however valid, cannot become an excuse to drop reform altogether. The most important step to safeguard our elections is to ban the use of paperless voting machines and require audits of the paper record. The Holt-Davis legislation does that.

Time is of the essence. The longer Congress deliberates, the less time state officials will have to bring their election systems in line with new federal rules, and the greater the risk of problems as state officials rush to comply. If the House fails to pass legislation before the August recess, it will be extremely difficult for the Senate to take action before the end of the year.
That would be unfair to voters who have been waiting since 2000 for reforms to finally restore their confidence in the integrity of our election system.


Norden is the director of the Voting Technology Assessment Project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Lee is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.