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.
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.
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.
About as Secure as
a Hotel Minibar”>
Felten also contends that the physical locks used to prevent people from accessing the insides of Diebolds machines can be opened with common keys such as those used to secure hotel minibars.
Those issues, as well as the problem of having no method to audit votes on some e-voting devices, could paint a grim picture of the project.
“The states and counties that have bought this equipment know very little about how it works and dont have much evidence that it will meet requirements from a security perspective,” said Felten in Princeton, N.J. “These devices will boot up and take votes, but, in terms of accuracy, there are not a lot of good reasons to trust them; a well-run enterprise procurement would allow for a lot more due diligence before buying.”
Another high-profile e-voting critic, Avi Rubin, a professor of computer science at The Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, and author of the e-voting critique “Brave New Ballot,” agreed that such shortcomings would never be tolerated in a private-sector IT rollout.
“Election officials were so sure these systems would make elections easier they didnt even consider huge issues such as a lack of audit capabilities. These were people untrained as IT professionals who didnt even consider the security implications,” Rubin said.
“The result was the adoption of a bunch of half-baked solutions that by no means can be considered a reasonable way to conduct trustworthy elections; if you were in charge of a private-sector project like this, youd get fired; its that simple.”
A Blueprint for Failure
While even the most jaded critics concede that its too soon to know for sure whether the current e-voting upgrade will indeed be considered a significant failure, experts say there are many lessons already learned that enterprises should consider when planning their own IT rollouts.
“The biggest lesson [evident] right now is dont try to rush something of this scale,” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a political consulting company in Washington. “Its a hard lesson, and it was foisted upon us by the deadlines that the federal government and Congress pulled out of a hat,” Brace said.
The primary reason the e-voting project has stumbled so badly is that those in charge of the effort failed to view the move as an IT upgrade and had little appreciation for the size of the undertaking, Brace said.
“They thought it could be done in this amount of time, and, despite the fact that election administrators said they needed more time, [Congress] didnt listen,” he said.
Brace pointed to a last-minute compromise passed just before the 2002 congressional elections known as the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, as emblematic of the misguided rush to adopt e-voting tools. The policy was incomplete and set impossible deadlines, he said.
Among other things, HAVA provided for a new agency, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which would foster changes in election laws to help election administrators grapple with e-voting.
It took more than a year after the measure was passed, until December 2003, for the commissioners of the group to be appointed. When those commissioners had been named, experts said, they had no offices, no staff and no operating budget, and their work had to be completed in two years.
Running Out og Time
“I would say that the EAC encountered significant challenges from Day One,” said Ray Martinez, a former commissioner of the EAC. “The process took longer than anyone expected, and we were never able to catch up.”
Martinez, now an attorney in private practice in Austin, Texas, was the commissions first vice chairman. He now works as a policy adviser on election issues to the Pew Center on the States, part of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The machines were only part of the problem, as a statewide voter registration database was required by HAVA in every state in the nation.
In many states, this meant at the very least converting voter records to a database that met federal requirements. In some states, it meant moving from locally held manual systems to a statewide database almost overnight.
“When you combine the implementation of a statewide database and implementation of electronic voting systems, we had to build in time for state and local administrators around the country to be able to gain some level of comfort,” Martinez said.
“There was no time for any of this. There was not enough time built in for our decentralized election system to absorb the changes. There were a series of breakdowns.”
Martinez said that the EAC wasnt able to get its first set of voluntary standards published until 2005, with states election administrators required to be ready for the 2006 election or violate the HAVA law as applied by the Department of Justice. Most of those groups had been holding off on their upgrades, waiting for help and funding from the EAC, Martinez said.
“I dont think anyone anticipated that HAVA would have become such a massive IT project,” he said.
Adequate training for workers is also an issue. In nearly every jurisdiction in the United States, voting is handled by volunteers. Poll-worker training is a perennial problem in the United States, said Wendy Weiser, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University School of Laws Brennan Center for Justice.
Other experts agreed that the staffing demands of the rollout were unrealistic. “We have 182,000 polling places in America that are manned by about 1.5 million poll workers,” said Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the Washington-based EAC, who oversees the training of U.S. poll workers.
“They have to be trained to deal with this new equipment, [and] they have to understand provisional voting, the machines, everything,” DeGregorio said.
The lack of federal guidance, coupled with the relatively nascent state of e-voting technology, meant that a lot of voting administrators decided to simply wait to see what was going to happen, a strategy that would never be tolerated in profit-driven businesses, experts said.
“There were many delays. They had to wait for the state legislatures to empower them before they could implement,” said Weiser in New York.
“There were political delays in the state governments. There were delays in the EAC, which wasnt even constituted until a year after it was supposed to have been; it wasnt given funds when it was supposed to have them.”
In a nod to the lack of planning by legislators buying the technologies, vendors of e-voting devices admit that some of the concerns being leveled at their companies today are leftovers from the punch-card era and could have been considered more closely upfront.
“Some of the allegations are almost word for word what the allegations were with the old lever machines,” said Mark Radke, director of marketing for Diebold Election Systems, in Allen, Texas.
Security glitches were not the biggest issue in recent voting machine use. Several states held primary elections in 2006, and in some cases, the problem boiled down to training—ranging from poll workers forgetting to insert memory cards to not knowing how to turn the machines on, Radke said.
“Training is critically important to a smooth implementation,” Radke said.