No Vote of Confidence for E-Voting

The U.S. e-voting system upgrade is being plagued by deep-seated problems, the biggest of which is wasted time, as many e-voting projects remain unfinished.

Imagine an upgrade that calls for untrained people with inadequate leadership to roll out a critical new technology under crushing deadlines.

Then they must perform the upgrade under intense public scrutiny and cut the already-short timeline for completion in half while fostering ever-growing expectations for the projects impact.

The truth is, you dont even need to imagine it: This is the actual scenario that has led to one of the most criticized IT projects in recent history—the adoption of electronic voting systems in the United States.

As voters head to the polls on Nov. 7—one-third of them voting on new e-voting machines for the first time—the story of the U.S. e-voting upgrade is long and littered with stories of failed careers, wasted money and abandoned equipment.

The biggest wasted asset has been time, as many e-voting projects that were supposed to have been completed by now remain unfinished.

The U.S. Congress decided to embrace e-voting after the 2000 election, when presidential recounts kept the election in doubt for weeks before eventually being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The controversy over the 2000 vote led politicians and pundits to question the efficacy of mechanical lever-action voting machines in use since the mid-1920s, card-punch machines from the early 1950s and newer optical scan machines from the 1970s.

Only a few jurisdictions in the United States were using some type of e-voting machines in 2000, yet, somehow, the largely untested systems were widely embraced by legislators as the answer to the embarrassment of pregnant and dimpled chads.

In the rush to adopt e-voting technologies, the country now finds itself grappling with one of the most troubling IT upgrades in its history, one that already has some critics calling for voters to abandon the system altogether.

In that sense, experts contend, the adoption of e-voting technologies in the United States could be used as a blueprint for a failed enterprise IT rollout.

The Fallout

At the core of the controversy over the e-voting technologies adopted by several states are issues related to the security of the hardware and software systems used to facilitate electronic ballots. Concerns over the technologies range from the inability of some e-voting systems to have their ballot input audited to debate over the foreign ownership of one company making some of the equipment.

In Maryland, questions over the security of e-voting machines made by Diebold Election Systems, a subsidiary of Diebold Inc., of North Canton, Ohio, one of the leading vendors in the space, led some legislators to recommend a move back to paper ballots this year.

After years of reports of potential vulnerabilities in the machines, e-voting opponents were shocked in late October when an anonymous source mailed three disks containing software code used on the Diebold machines to Cheryl Kagan, a former Maryland delegate.

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The availability of the code indicated the lack of trust voters should have in the devices, said experts, including Kagan, since the code on the disks potentially could be used to launch attacks on the states e-voting machines.

In Illinois, an estimated 1.3 million voters in Chicago learned in late October that their personal information, including names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and addresses, may have been exposed when a computer used to store electronic voter registration records was allegedly hacked by a political group opposed to e-voting.

And in the latest twist in the e-voting controversy, some legislators have begun to question the use of machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems, of Oakland, Calif., whose parent company, Smartmatic, is owned by Venezuelan nationals believed to have political ties to Hugo Chavez, Venezuelas firebrand president who recently labeled President Bush "the devil" in a speech before the United Nations.

Edward Felten, director of Princeton Universitys Center for Information Technology Policy, co-authored a September report that claimed vote-stealing programs could be installed easily on most voting machines in mere seconds.

Next Page: About as secure as a hotel minibar.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...