September 30, 2003

Problems Found in Voting Technology

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Last night at 7p.m., the Fingerlakes Election Committee showcased a presentation in voter education in the Borg Warner room at the Tompkins County Library. The committee sought to address a problem made almost comical in the Bush-Gore election–voting mishaps. For approximately one hour, interested viewers watched the presentation and heard Committee Coordinator Robert Lipari describe problems found in the new voting system Tompkins country has adopted in the wake of the 2000 election glitches.

Instead of merely discussing the problems with mechanical voting machines of the past, such as those seen in the Bush-Gore face-off, Lipari explained the problems to come with the newly implemented electronic machines, citing the 2002 state elections as examples. Following the presentation was a 15-20 minute question and answer session by Lipari, the presentation’s creator.

Before addressing the new systems, Lipari began by saying that after the 2000 election, Congress has taken steps to eliminate paper and mechanical voting systems with computerized systems. Introducing the “Help America Vote Act” (HAVA) of 2002, Congress set requirements that each state must meet for each election. This act will effectively require states to replace mechanical systems with electronic machines to solve the major problem found in the 2000 race, imperfect vote counting technology. However, installing the new electronic system to replace an old problem will only create new ones, Lipari said.

The presentation went on to outline the committee’s major concerns with the new electronic voting systems, called Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machines, or DREs. Lipari expressed the most concern with the reliance on these voting machines that record and tally votes “exclusively through secret electronic means and provide no paper ballot that can be verified by the voter,” as he explained in his “Summary of the Problem with Electronic Voting.”

Without being able to see how voters actually voted in the form of a paper receipt, DRE machine mishaps could easily go unrecognized without the hard proof of voting tallies. Additionally, serious system errors could go undetected. Georgia’s Diebold brand of DRE voting systems have crashed after only a few hours use, in spite of their successful mock election test. Given that computer programs and technologies inevitably encounter operating problems, it is impossible to establish fail-proof voting procedures using the DRE machines. Other potential issues with the use of DREs include operating system security issues and threats from both insider and outsider corruption and hacking.

Such problems did, in fact, occur with the advent of electronic voting as used in the 2002 state elections. In Texas’s state elections, a defective computer chip in the Scurry County’s optical scanner misread ballots and incorrectly gave candidates inaccurate landslide victories in two separate races. That same election year, the Tennessee voting system encountered a computer error that produced incorrect totals in all races. To obtain the correct results, poll workers had to resort to hand-held calculators. Although it is unprovable whether DRE systems are specifically to blame for such election crises, potential errors within the systems make DRE errors distinct possibilities.

These are only two of the multitude of stories reported by the media, and those incidences are merely the ones that have been detected. Currently, about 20 percent of all voters will cast their votes on DRE machines in the 2004 presidential election. Lipari says this information raises the frightening question: “How many election results were compromised by unnoticed computer errors?”

The Fingerlakes Election Committee presentation appears as the second of three projects the group has organized. First and foremost, the committee has been working with voter registration, assisting community members in registering to vote. Next on the committee’s agenda is what Lipari calls voter “education,” presentations like last night’s, inciting awareness among community members. The final project Lipari says the committee will complete is a “get out to vote” push, in which committee members will campaign, not for a particular party or candidate, but for participation and enlightened decision-making in general in elections.

On his handout from the presentation, Lipari sent an ominous message, saying, “in all states, elections are almost completely computerized. Votes are counted by secret software the public cannot inspect, and paperless voting machines make meaningful recounts impossible.”

Lipari urges all voters to “insist” on voter-verifiable paper ballots in order to require proof of each vote cast, so that when inevitable errors do occur, the voting officials can properly inspect and analyze each problem.

One possible solution to the problem of not having paper proof in the DRE system would be the passage of the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, introduced into the House of Representatives in May 2003. This act would amend HAVA by requiring a paper trail of all votes. Currently with 30 cosponsors, it remains in the Committee on House Administration and awaits passage.

Additionally, Lipari argues that when elections are suspect or candidates challenge the results, elections need to be verified. Paper ballots are thus essential to ensuring that officials have followed the democratic voting process. Only with these paper proofs, Lipari said, can our voter officials perform honest state and national elections.

Archived article by Marisa Greenwald