E-Voting Underachieves

Opinion: Technical problems impede the momentum of e-voting.

From the digging through the archives department: "Soon every local, state and national election will be conducted online." Who was the fool who wrote that one? Answer: me, your friendly "E-Volution" columnist in the Jan. 3, 2000, issue of PC Week (five months before we changed our name to eWEEK). And for you Marv Albert fans, it came complete with the clever headline: "Online voting: Yes, and it counts!"

I could hardly be faulted for such wide-eyed optimism, could I? At the time, the stock market hadnt peaked. Everything was becoming dot-commed. Our parent company, Ziff Davis Media, took the PC out of our name for that very reason. "E" would be around a lot longer than PCs and would be a lot more relevant. If you had e-commerce, eBay and eTrade, why not e-voting?

That year, the Arizona Democratic Party held its presidential primary election over the Internet, and Alaska Republicans conducted part of their primary straw poll online. When the Florida ballot fiasco happened later that year, did we need any more proof that the nations election systems badly needed an overhaul?

Internet voting has not caught on, due to security and business-model problems. But "electronic" voting has, thanks to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was enacted in the wake of the Florida recount. As Caron Carlson reported in our cover story last week, more than 30 percent of the presidential election ballots will be cast this year using touch-screen, kiosk-type machines. Thats just behind the leading method, optical scanning. Almost 14 percent of voters still use the old-fashioned lever-style booths, and about 12 percent still use punch cards.

As Carlson reported, there are some teensy-weensy problems with the electronic systems. One, poor security, has been obvious for several years yet remains to be remedied. Two, the major suppliers of these machines, particularly Diebold and Election Systems & Software, have been dogged by allegations ranging from fraud to outspoken support of President Bush, which hardly engenders the confidence of those who are still sticking pins in their Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris dolls.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead the full text of Carlsons article on opposition to paperless voting.

But those problems pale in comparison with the biggest shortcoming, which is that few of the systems contain a way to create a certifiable record of a persons vote. If a recount were again called where these machines are installed, it could make all of us long for the days of hanging and dimpled chads. Belatedly, Congress is holding hearings on VVPAT, or voter-verified paper audit trail, legislation, but nothing will be put in place for this fall.

As the Democratic National Convention kicks off this week in Boston, we can take note that politics has always had a kind of love-hate relationship with technology.

Voting system problems are nothing new. In the old days, ballots were stuffed, lost and cast by ghosts. Lever machines were forever getting jammed, losing who knows how many votes along the way. Even todays most reliable method of optical scanning is dubious, if you recall from your SATs how easy it is to mark outside the dot.

I was right about one thing in the 2000 column when I pointed out that people "will find in the Internet new ways to mobilize causes, raise funds and get out the vote." Indeed, Howard Deans campaign and sites such as MoveOn.org proved this in spades last year, raising millions and getting people charged up, while John Kerry and others lagged behind.

But once the primary season came around, where was the Internet then? Dean fell faster than Enron stock. As much as wed like to believe that the distributed nature of the Internet is the great democratizing force in the world (and Ive said that, too), the reality is that power is more concentrated and technology is less reliable than we are willing to admit.

When real change is warranted, though, we ought to be thankful that we still have the power to do the right thing, however imperfect the means, whether via paper, machine, touch-screen or browser. At the end of the day, its better to have hanging chads than no chads at all.

News Editor Scot Petersen can be reached at scot_petersen@ziffdavis.com.

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