Friday, March 10, 2006

The Electronic Voting Mess Persists

The Washington Spectator has an article by Warren Stewart, "Do You Know How Your Vote Will Be Counted?" that should ring alarm bells among those who thought the electronic voting problem was (about to be) solved.
The troubling truth about voting in America today is that a majority of the electorate casts their ballots on computers that run software that is hidden from public view and lacks any independent means of verification. The process by which our votes are cast and counted is controlled by private corporations to an extent that threatens the foundations of democracy.

Last September, the Government Accountability Office released a report on the security and reliability of electronic voting machines. The report, which detailed the findings of a nine-month study, said that "concerns about electronic voting machines have been realized and have caused problems with recent elections, resulting in the loss and miscount of votes." The GAO reported that it had confirmed instances of "weak security controls, system design flaws, inadequate system version control, inadequate security testing, incorrect system configuration, poor security management, and vague or incomplete voting system standards."

While acknowledging that efforts were under way to improve the situation, the report warned that "these actions are unlikely to have a significant effect in the 2006 federal election cycle." Not exactly reassuring.

And the situation has hardly improved in the months since. In many states, it is still unclear what kind of voting machines will be used in primaries only a few months away. Running elections has always been a daunting and largely unappreciated job performed by state and county officials. But the challenges they face in 2006 are unprecedented, and many have their fingers crossed hoping their experiments with voting technology will work out...

Experience has now demonstrated what the voting industry no doubt knew in 2002: elections using DREs are significantly more expensive—and therefore more lucrative for vendors—than those using paper ballots. And while they're more expensive, they are not necessarily better...

Fundamental to the argument against electronic voting is that there is no opportunity to observe the counting of votes. When using DREs, the recording and counting of votes is performed by software—software that is considered "proprietary" by the voting machine vendors, and that is therefore kept secret even from election officials. Not only is the software secret, but the process by which it is tested and the results of that testing are also secret. The laboratories that test the software and hardware are paid by the vendors, but of course all these financial transactions are—you guessed it—secret.

So perhaps its not surprising that there are hundreds of reported incidences of malfunctioning electronic voting machines in every election cycle—and those are just the errors that have been identified...

To be fair, there are states whose new equipment has been delivered on time to their county clerks, who are busy training and preparing for this year's elections. But most of those states will be employing at least some of their equipment for the first time. Thomas Jefferson said that "eternal vigilance is the price of freedom," and this is certainly a year when vigilance is required. More than ever before, we need to pay attention to how are votes are cast—and counted.
See also my posts Diebold Voting Hack Demonstrated, Electronic Voting Not Yet Secure, and More on explaining the exit polls.

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