Interesting piece in Time:
A woman walked into a polling place in Peoria, Ill. last week and proceeded to use one of the new electronic voting machines set up for early voting. She logged on, went through each contest and seemed to be making her choices. After reviewing each race, the machine checked to see if she was satisfied with her selections and wanted to move on. Each time, she pressed YES, and the machine progressed to the next race. When she was done, a waving American flag appeared on the screen, indicating that her votes had been cast and recorded.
But there was a problem. The woman had not made any choices at all. She had only browsed. Now when she told the election judges she was ready to do it again–but this time actually vote–they told her it was too late. Pressing the last button, they said, is like dropping your ballot in an old-fashioned ballot box. There’s no getting it back.
So this: In one week, more than 80 million Americans will go to the polls, and a record number of them–90%–will either cast their vote on a computer or have it tabulated that way. When that many people collide with that many high-tech devices, there are going to be problems. Some will be machine malfunctions. Some could come from sabotage by poll workers or voters themselves. But in a venture this large, trouble is most likely to come from just plain human error, a fact often overlooked in an environment as charged and conspiratorial as America is in today. Four years after Congress passed a law requiring every state to vote by a method more reliable than the punch-card system that paralyzed Florida and the nation in 2000, the 2006 election is shaping up into a contest not just between Democrats and Republicans but also between people who believe in technology and those who fear machines cannot be trusted to count votes in a closely divided democracy….
So far, at least, Murphy’s Law has been a bigger problem than fraud. Many jurisdictions, especially those with long or bilingual ballots, have struggled to program their computers perfectly, and there have been scattered reports of glitches. In three Virginia cities, for example, electronic voting machines have inadvertently shortened the name of the Democratic candidate in one of the tightest Senate races in the nation. In Charlottesville, Falls Church and Alexandria, James H. Webb’s name will appear on the ballot summary screen page simply as “James H. ‘Jim'”–with no last name. Sounds like a crisis–except that the same thing happened in the June primary and Webb still won. A bigger worry concerns something that is least likely to happen–that someone will somehow meddle with the devices and manipulate vote tallies. It’s not impossible. Princeton computer scientist Edward Felten and a couple of graduate students this past summer tested the defenses of a voting machine made by Diebold, a major manufacturer of such devices. Felten’s team found three ways to insert into the machine rogue programs that allowed them to redistribute votes that had already been cast. In one instance, the testers had to take the machine apart with a screwdriver–an act likely to draw the attention of poll workers. But in two others, they were able to quickly infect the device with a standard memory-access card in which they had installed a preprogrammed chip. Other computer scientists have also breached electronic voting machines. Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a Michigan Republican who has been holding hearings this fall, says manufacturers “have produced machines that are very vulnerable, not very reliable and I suspect fairly easy to hack.”
Concerns about fraud are heightened by the fact that with some electronic voting machines, there is no such thing as a real recount. When asked again for the tally, the computer could spit back the same response as the first time. For that reason, at least 27 states have built in a backup that requires electronic voting machines to provide an attached voter-verified paper trail–a running ticker that allows voters to see on paper that their votes are recorded as cast. That way, if there’s a question about the electronic tally, the paper records can be counted by hand.
It was just such a paper trail that enabled Marilyn Jo Drake, the auditor in Iowa’s Pottawattamie County, to suss out an anomaly in a county-recorder race she was monitoring in June. She noticed that a 20-year incumbent was being beaten 10 to 1 by an unknown newcomer. Sensing a glitch, Drake cross-checked the electronic results against the totals on the paper vote and discovered the veteran was actually well ahead. The problem, it turned out, was the way the candidates’ names had been ordered and coded into the access cards that activated the machines, which were made by Omaha’s ES & S. Drake says she should have caught the problem in the pre-election test runs. “It was human error both on their end and my end,” she notes. Not every county will have an auditor as sharp-eyed as Drake–or an outcome as transparently false as the one she uncovered. “We were just plain lucky,” she says.
We need to demand accountability with the most fundamental aspect of our election system. These machines can be a great improvement, but we MUST have a paper trail, inspected at the time of voting by the voter and secured for future investigation should the need arise. What should we do about it? Call your state rep and complain?