Archive for Sunday, March 21, 2004

Can we count on the count?

As November approaches, election officials express concerns about electronic voting

March 21, 2004


The discord of Florida 2000 is hard to forget. Angry crowds yelling at local election officials, a paralysis that virtually halted other political work, accusations of a stolen presidential election that echo today.

But the many promises that followed the 36-day stalemate have not produced a nationwide solution to the glaring flaws exposed in the way we cast votes and count them -- and another presidential election is just months away.

There's blame enough to go around. Pick any of the following, or all: President Bush and Congress; the voting machine industry; local election officials. (You can add computer scientists, the media, even mistake-prone voters.)

It's true some changes have been made: Roughly 50 million registered voters, or slightly more than a quarter nationwide, will be able to cast ballots on the latest touchscreen equipment this year.

But that leaves the glass half-full, at best, especially with the biggest reforms so far now coming in for criticism. In particular, those ATM-style electronic voting machines -- once trumpeted as the solution to voting problems -- are now under fire from some computer scientists and lawmakers. That, in turn, is slowing further reforms and weakening confidence in the system even more.

"You have resistance, sort of natural resistance, to change," says Ken Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state. Legislators in his state, worried about security, want an end to electronic machine purchases, even if punch cards remain in many counties.

In critics' eyes, the problems have been worsened by electoral officials blind to the dangers of a broken system or influenced by political aims, and caring too little about damage done to voters' trust. Others see the slow progress as healthy -- that's the way democracies work, they argue, by publicly hashing out problems.

Either way, the bottom line is that another razor-thin presidential election could again leave a victor unclear, a system unable to smoothly resolve the problem, and a skeptical and angry public.

Cash, computers, confidence

The pitfalls break down into three broad categories: cash, computers and confidence.

After the 2000 crisis, promises of electoral reform didn't translate into quick action. It took nearly two years for Congress to pass the law giving states money and direction to buy new machines, and improve voter registration and training.

The problem was that policymakers were pulled in different directions -- minority and disabled voters sought federal standards to ensure all had equal access to the polls, while state election officials argued local control would best serve widely different communities.

Experts produced nearly a dozen studies, including recommendations from a Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter commission.

Money for the states to implement reform took even longer: Of $3.8 billion promised, states have only received $650 million so far.

The commission that was to be created to dole out money and advice was delayed by arguments between the White House and Congress. Members weren't appointed until December, less than a year before the 2004 election.

"I put the largest blame on Congress itself," says Kim Brace, an elections expert who consults with states. "They built up a lot of hope in the rhetoric side and fell through dramatically on the action side. And certainly on the dollars."

The delays continue.

Critical technical work on voting machines, tasked to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was suspended for two months this year because of a lack of federal money. The institute's job? Make sure standards are tough for computerized touchscreen voting machines.

And that leads to the heart of the fight: Critics, including some prominent Democrats, say the ATM-style machines are a bigger danger than punch cards, source of the infamous "hanging chad" ballots that left Florida election commissioners trying to divine voter intent from bumps on the cards.

Lately, those warnings have been heard: Besides Ohio, officials are reconsidering or delaying the switch to new machines in California, West Virginia, Utah, and more.

"Why trade one imperfect system for another imperfect system?" David Wilde, a councilman in Salt Lake County, asked when questions were raised there about switching to touchscreen machines.

Computer woes

Computer scientists' worries run much deeper.

The high-tech voting machines, they say, can miscount election results through a software bug or a crashing computer; what's even more troubling, they can be manipulated if someone hacks the computer's software. And the biggest problem is that, without a paper ballot, there is nothing tangible to recount.

Because the voting machine industry keeps its computer code secret, claiming competitive business concerns, no one can be truly confident that the machines are as secure as they promise, critics say.

The solution, in this view, are "voter verifiable paper trails" -- a paper ballot that the computer prints after a vote is cast, that the voter can see to ensure their choice was accurately recorded, and that will be locked away for any recount.

The paper trail proposed would "do more harm than good," said Dawn Williams, who oversees elections in Marshall County, Iowa. The receipts will just confuse voters, add more equipment to break down and more burdens for poll workers.

Primary glitches

Primary elections so far this year have produced small glitches -- machines that failed to boot up in San Diego, coding problems in Georgia and Maryland -- but no outright disasters. Supporters of the new technology say that proves the wisdom of their confidence; doubters say it shows nothing of the sort.

The suspicion of critics is compounded by the fact that election officials and the voting machine industry are often closely intertwined.

And don't leave out the politics. The chief executive of Ohio-based Diebold Inc., one of the largest voting machine manufacturers and a top target of security critics, is a top fund-raiser for the Bush campaign. In an August fund-raising letter, Walden O'Dell sought $10,000 donations and declared he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."

He later announced that he would "try to be more sensitive" and would lower his political profile.

While errors are inevitable in a system recording tens of millions of votes nationally, it's clear that scrutiny of the voting system will be at an all-time high this year. A greater-than-usual number of election officials have quit or taken retirement. Others are just hoping for a presidential blowout.

"Every election official's prayer is, you hear many times, they really don't care who wins," said Richard Smolka, an elections expert and retired political science professor. "They just don't want the election to be that close."

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