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.
Some of the VCIA Acts proponents said that although it enjoys growing support, it has been fettered largely by lawmakers unwilling to acknowledge that the Help America Vote Act unintentionally resulted in hasty state purchases. “Its a combination of benign neglect and fear of some members raising questions about the election and skepticism about the legitimacy of the problem,” said one source.
Simons put it more bluntly. “Nobody wants to admit a mistake,” she said.
For some computer scientists, adding printers to DRE systems to create paper trails is an improvement, but it isnt sufficient to create confidence in an election. Some say the best option is to throw out DRE machines and start over.
“[States] should ask for their money back,” Simons said.
Diebolds AccuVote-TS Ballot Station is in place in about 50 percent of the counties that are using electronic systems this year, and it was revealed last summer to be vulnerable to several simple attacks.
About another 6 percent of the counties using electronic machines purchased equipment made by Election Systems & Software Inc., of Omaha, Neb., whose vice president of customer support, Todd Urosevich, is the brother of Diebolds Election Systems division president, Bob Urosevich.
In April, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley decertified Diebolds newer AccuVote-TSx system, having determined that the hardware and firmware failed to get federal qualification. State officials are working to certify AccuVote-TS machines in time for the fall elections.
“Some of our biggest criticisms are not really fixable,” said Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, whose research team found numerous security flaws with the AccuVote-TS.
Diebold spokesperson David Bear said the products will evolve with customer demand. Even the democratic process is subject to market pressures, he said.
“Whether you do or dont have paper receipts is a question for election officials. We will do what is asked for. Were in a market-driven economy,” Bear said. “It wouldnt be a technological hurdle to modify [internal printers] to serve in a different function.”
As time runs out before the upcoming presidential election, some computer scientists said they are nervous. Popular confidence in the elections integrity will likely depend on how close it is, Rubin said—if it is a landslide, he said, he probably wont be very concerned.