Voters took to the streets in 19 states last week to protest paperless electronic voting machines. In the coast-to-coast "Computer Ate My Vote" rallies, citizens showed what activists say could become widespread dissent against nonverifiable ballots if this years presidential election becomes another close call.
The crowds mobilized last week were not Luddites looking to thwart progress; most were civil rights advocates and technology professionals, including computer scientists from some of the countrys most prestigious institutions. Their concern is that the rush to make voting more user-friendly has made the process less secure and reliable.
The growing movement to secure election paper trails has captured the attention of lawmakers and policy-makers. Congress is belatedly holding hearings this month on VVPAT (voter-verifiable paper audit trail) legislation that has been pending for more than a year. While it is almost certainly too late to make changes for this years election, momentum is surging to ensure that voters will have VVPAT options by the 2006 elections.
The main problem with paperless, touch-screen voting machines (also called direct recording election, or DRE, machines), computer scientists say, is that there is no way to conduct a recount. Even if some of the machines had not been found in recent analyses to be vulnerable to simple attacks—as the AccuVote-TS Ballot Station made by Diebold Inc., based in North Canton, Ohio, was found to be last summer—there is no way, without a verifiable paper ballot, to ensure votes are recorded accurately.
"I think the idea of not being able to do recounts is something all people can understand. Software is buggy. Bugs in these files can cause miscounts," said Barbara Simons, a computer scientist who participated in Salt Lake Citys "Computer Ate My Vote" rally. "Some people looked at Florida 2000 and concluded you cant count paper. But banks count paper all the time."
Electronic voting machines are poised for use in the November elections in more than 675 counties, comprising more than 30 percent of the nations registered voters, according to Washington-based Election Data Services Inc. Many jurisdictions have bought the new equipment with funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002, and some states are fully committed to DRE machines.
In April, voters in Maryland filed a lawsuit against the state elections board to decertify its Diebold machines. But 23 of the states 24 counties will vote on the companys AccuVote-TS Ballot Station in November while the suit remains pending, said Joseph Torre, director of Voting Systems and Procurement at the Maryland State Board of Elections. The state is not implementing VVPAT options for this election, Torre said, because there are no guidelines in place.
"Theres no standards right now for voter receipts to be added," Torre said. "But if thats going to give our voters confidence, we would certainly want to do it [in the future]."
Other states are not waiting for national standards. A new Ohio law requires DRE machines to have VVPAT functions by 2006. A national battle cry for retrofitting DRE machines with backup paper systems is sounding from many quarters as well, including the Democratic National Convention, whose chairman, Terry McAuliffe, urged the newly formed U.S. Election Assistance Commission to consider adding auditing features to DRE systems.
More than a year ago, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., introduced the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, which would require all voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper record for use in manual audits by this years election. A similar bill introduced more recently sets the same requirements for the 2006 election.