French e-voting study highlights hidden costs

Electoral districts opting to use electronic voting machines face significant costs, some hidden, according to a new report from the French Internet Rights Forum.

The machines cost an average of €4,400 (US$6,300) each for a voting station serving 800 to 1000 electors, but electoral districts faced many other costs associated with their use, according to the Forum. Some districts had difficulty evaluating those costs, the French IT lobbying group wrote in "An interim report on the use of voting machines for electronic voting in the political elections of 2007."

The report, based on a questionnaire sent to election managers in districts using the machines, does not deal with other matters of public concern, including the security and usability of the machines: the Forum plans to cover those in a fuller report next year.

Use of electronic voting machines has grown in France in recent years: 15 electoral districts used them in local and European elections in 2004, 55 districts used them in a referendum in 2005, and 82 sought permission to use them for the presidential election, although four subsequently changed their minds.

Around 3.3 percent of French electors live in districts that used voting machines in the presidential election: the others used paper ballots.

Traditionally, French electors receive a separate ballot paper for each candidate standing in an election. They place the paper for their preferred candidate in an envelope, and then drop the envelope in a ballot box, which is transparent so that everyone can see it contained no votes at the start of the election.

One district said it expected to save tons of paper through not having to provide the ballot papers -- but not all paper could be avoided, as the rules require that each elector be mailed an envelope containing a flyer for each candidate.

For paper elections, that envelope must also contain the corresponding ballot papers for each candidate, so that electors will recognize them when they arrive at the polling station. That mailing is paid for by central government.

Saving paper did not mean saving money for districts using voting machines: they had to pay for an additional mailing showing how the candidates' "ballot papers" would appear on screen. Some of these had to be sent at express letter rates because of delays in programming the machines. No district questioned had foreseen those additional costs, according to the Forum.

At the legislative elections in May and June, the on-screen presentation of ballots presented another problem. In districts where there were many candidates, it was not possible for some voting machines to display all their names and party affiliations on the screen at the same time. Meeting this legal requirement is not a problem with ballot papers, which can be placed side by side on a large table.

Some districts said their decision to use machines was based on cost, as they saw the use of electronic voting machines as a way to cut down on the labor-intensive process of counting ballot papers. One district estimated this at €13,000 per election. Only one district surveyed said it expected its costs to increase.

Several districts had to buy additional machines, doubling them up at the last minute in some polling stations when it became apparent that voters could not operate the machines fast enough. However, the French elections regulator has ruled that only one machine can be used per polling station, as under French law, each machine is considered equivalent to a ballot box, and to avoid fraud, only one ballot box is used per station. That leaves such districts with the additional administrative cost of creating new polling stations, staffing them and informing electors of their new voting place in future elections.

Among the other hidden expenses cited by the forum are the potential cost of replacement machines. The districts surveyed have not budgeted to upgrade their to cope with evolving regulations or technological threats. One district expects its machines to last for 15 or 20 years, while others cited five to ten year lifespans more realistic for battery-powered electronic devices.

Other ongoing costs included secure storage of the machines to prevent tampering; service contracts and extensions to guarantees; software licenses; provision of additional devices for the blind or partially sighted, and fees for notaries certifying the condition of the machines.

Districts have faced legal challenges -- so far unsuccessful -- to block the use of voting machines because of concerns about security or transparency. One charge is that while almost any elector is capable of verifying that the transparent ballot boxes are empty at the start of the election, few have the technical knowledge to verify that a machine showing a counter reset to zero has not been tampered with in some other way -- and in any case, electoral procedures do not allow citizens to conduct the in-depth investigations that would be required.

Some of those questioned by the Forum called for central government to spend more money on educating voters about the security of the three models of voting machines authorized for use, and the type certification process the machines have gone through. Those models -- the iVotronic, manufactured by Election Systems & Software and distributed in France by Datamatique; the Point & Vote from Indra Sistemas, and the ESF1 from NV Nederlandsche Apparatenfabriek (Nedap) -- are certified for use indefinitely in France.

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