• United States

Vote early, and often, but save a copy

Nov 04, 20033 mins

Tuesday is Election Day in the U.S., although in an odd-numbered year, most of the contests are local city council affairs that don’t capture national attention. But some U.S. localities are experimenting with electronic voting machines for the first time, in hopes of rolling the technology out in time for next year’s highly anticipated presidential election.

It’s hard to imagine an election causing more controversy than the U.S. presidential contest of 2000, which highlighted the antiquated voting system used in many Florida counties. But with a contentious election looming next year, some voters are concerned about the speed at which electronic voting machines with touchscreen technology and questionable security safeguards are rolling out across the country.

Several states, including Georgia, Florida and California, purchased and deployed equipment from Diebold, Sequoia Voting Systems and other companies during the various 2002 elections, while others are using the technology for the first time this week.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 is driving the adoption of electronic voting processes. Under the law passed in 2002, states are required to upgrade their infamous punch-card ballot systems or lever machines to electronic devices, and receive federal assistance in doing so.

Diebold has faced recent criticism from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Rice University that its insecure source code leaked onto the Internet could be hacked by an enterprising political activist of any stripe. Wired magazine reported earlier this year that software belonging to Sequoia was left on an unprotected server available to the public where anyone could have downloaded it and identified weaknesses.

In response, Diebold issued a statement regarding its technology. The code found on the Internet was outdated, and not used in current versions of its software, it said. The company also said that the voting terminals are not connected to public networks, eliminating the possibility that a hacker could break in.

Results are uploaded over the Internet to a central server, but those results are considered unofficial. The official results are encoded onto a memory card which is transported by hand to election headquarters, Diebold said.

Most election officials concede there’s no surefire way to prevent voter fraud. But most of the electronic voting machines on the market today do not have the ability to generate a paper copy of a voter’s choice for both the voter and the election official.

Without a paper copy of an individual’s vote, election officials would be unable to go back and recount the votes in the event of a close election or unforeseen irregularities. Voters would also have no way of knowing whether their electronic choices were officially recorded without a receipt.

Of course, paper votes present their own problems. Local election boards would face costs in processing, storing and sorting paper votes, in addition to maintaining the electronic machines. Activists for the disabled also protest that some voters might not be able to read their printouts anyway, and would require another way to verify their vote. And communities that already have invested in electronic machines would be forced to upgrade their systems at considerable cost.

But until the new machines have been fully tested and verified, it makes sense to keep one foot in the old paper-based world while taking a step forward into the electronic age. In a country where voter turnout rates average only around 50%, U.S. voters have every reason to insist upon the most secure and reliable method of voting available, rather than the quick fix.