Are Electronic Voting Machines Reliable?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
November 1, 2004
Determined to avoid the fiasco of the 2000 U.S. presidential race—with its dimpled ballots and hanging chads—election officials around the country looked to new technology for tomorrow's U.S. presidential vote.

Many states have switched from paper ballots to high-tech, ATM-like electronic voting machines. State election officials expect touch screens to prove more reliable than older systems' punch cards.

But are these largely untested machines really secure?

For months now, computer experts have criticized the electronic voting machines, saying they are not much more reliable than home computers. Experts worry that hackers, software bugs, badly trained poll workers, or power outages could intentionally or accidentally erase or alter voting data captured by the new machines.

Critics maintain that, in the event of a close election, a recount would be impossible on machines that keep no paper record of votes cast.

"We're trusting the fate of our democracy to technology that's not ready yet," said Tadayoshi Kohno, a computer security expert at the University of San Diego in California.

Red Flag

Almost two million ballots were disqualified in the 2000 election because they registered multiple votes or none when run through vote-counting machines.

As a result of the confusion in 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to help buy improved voting equipment and to train poll workers and election officials across the country.

While only 10 percent of voters cast their ballots electronically in 2000, almost a third of U.S. voters in tomorrow's election are expected to use electronic voting machines.

But studies have shown that electronic voting machines are less reliable than paper ballots in accurately counting votes. The Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, a study group set up to analyze elections dating back to 1988, found that old-fashioned lever machines were actually more accurate than electronic voting machines.

"That was a red flag for us, because when we started this project, we all felt that electronic voting was the solution," said Stephen Ansolabehere, an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) political science professor and former director of the project.

"We were shocked to see that ... electronic voting was not performing as well as hand-counted paper or optically scanned paper," he said.

A series of failures in primary and local elections across the nation further eroded the confidence in the technology. A report commissioned by the state of Maryland found that the electronic voting system showed a high risk of compromise.

"There is no way to know that a fully electronic voting system is actually going to record the results the way people voted them," said Avi Rubin, a computer-security researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

The machine manufacturers say they have fixed the problems.

But one of the problems, critics say, is that the software code that runs the machines is proprietary, and therefore not open to public scrutiny.

Paper Trail

Much of the problem has focused on the lack of a voter-verifiable paper trail. Most touch screen machines will not produce a receipt for the voters.

"This makes the job of a person who wants to cheat a lot easier," Rubin said. "If the machines had a paper trail, anyone could inspect the outcome, because the paper would give you the right answer."

Nevada will be the only state to use machines with reel-to-reel paper cartridges that voters can review. The machines were used for the fall primary, and tests later showed that the paper totals and electronic totals matched perfectly.

In California, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley required counties to use machines that could produce a paper record. But most counties had already bought their equipment, at a cost of U.S. $3,000 each. There are 5,000 voting precincts in Los Angeles County alone, each using six to seven machines.

Defenders of the paperless machines argue that they are easier to adapt for blind voters because they can be outfitted with audio units. There is also no risk of receipts jamming machines.

"While people have real concerns about electronic voting machines, there are also lots of benefits to this technology," said Jonathan Katz, a political science professor at Caltech University in Pasadena, California, and a member of the Caltech-MIT Voting Project. "We don't have to worry about hanging chads. If someone overvotes or undervotes, that person will be alerted electronically."

Crime Scene

The greatest threat in electronic voting may actually come from people rather than machines. The average age of poll workers is reportedly close to 70. No matter how good the equipment is, those people have to make it work.

"Poll workers used to be observers, now they're service providers," said Ansolabehere, the MIT professor. "They're supposed to educate people on how to vote and intervene if there's a problem with a machine. There are more demands on poll workers than there used to be, and that's causing stress in the system."

Computer scientists say they fear a close election in which the results will be called into question.

"Where people are voting electronically, we won't be able to go back to accurately perform a recount of the voters' original intent," said Kohno of the University of San Diego.

But if that happens, he says, the polling station should be treated like a crime scene and computer security experts called in. "You want to preserve the forensics," Kohno said.

The bottom line: Come tomorrow, we may be longing for the days of the hanging chad.

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