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TechWatch the Vote
Jamais Cascio, 3 Aug 04

With less than three months left before the November 2 election in the United States, it's worth revisiting an issue that will undoubtedly be a key factor in how confident American voters feel about the outcome of the vote: "direct record electronic" (DRE) voting systems. We've touched on this issue several times (at length in January, and more briefly in March, April and June). It's an important problem, but there are solutions, both short-term and long-term. The lengthy extended post covers the details of what we can do to make sure the e-vote in November is fair and honest.

(If you're fuzzy on the details of the electronic voting controversy, read our summary here.)

The DRE voting issue is often cast in terms of hacked votes, unscrupulous voting system vendors, and behind-the-scenes machinations to undermine democracy. This gives any discussion of e-voting an unfortunate air of conspiracy theory. But whether you consider voting system manipulation to be almost inevitable or incredibly unlikely, you should be concerned about DRE systems. Why? Because with most electronic voting systems, there's no way to know whether the outcome reported is accurate. The only record of the vote is the electronic tabulation. There's no recount possible, no independent oversight; you have to trust the software. If the system says 140,000 votes have been cast, that's the result -- even if the district only contains 50,000 people total (yes, that actually happened, in 2003, in Indiana).

It's difficult to over-emphasize the magnitude of this problem. This is a single-point-of-failure, with no backup. Failures due to bad coding can look just as "real" as honest results, and only the most egregiously irrational numbers will be generally recognized as faulty. Even in these cases, there is no fall-back, and you can't recount the electronic figures in any meaningful way (they'll just give you the exact same result); all you can do is run the vote again with a paper ballot. Situations where the results appear at least arguably reasonable, if entirely unexpected, won't lead to a general agreement that a re-vote is needed. Even if nobody goes to court, everyone is left wondering if the results were really accurate.

We're not the only ones leery of faith-based voting systems. In California, Secretary of State Kevin Shelly recently de-certified Diebold electronic voting systems for the 2004 election (and the state will require e-voting systems to have a voter-verifiable paper trail by 2006); Nevada will use voter-verified paper ballot e-voting systems for this year's vote; Ohio has stopped deploying Diebold voting systems; and even the Republican party of Florida -- which had officially been promoting the use of touch-screen systems -- sent out an advisory to party members suggesting the use of absentee ballots (the party later rescinded the advisory). Europe, which has used electronic voting since the late 1990s in some locations, is reconsidering the security aspects.

As a long-term solution, you may wish to consider pushing your state's Senators and Representatives to support the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, known in the House as HR2239 and in the Senate as S.1980. This would mandate the nationwide use of voter-verifiable paper ballots as part of any DRE voting system. This page at VerifiedVoting.org can tell you whether the various Congresspeople in your state support the bill, which will not likely come up for a vote this term. Sadly, right now far more Democrats than Republicans show support for the measure -- this should not a partisan issue. System errors and unsecured software can hurt candidates from any party.

With HR2239/S.1980 dead for the year, voters must look to the states. But with 91 days left before the election, state-level attempts to block the use of non-verifiable DRE voting systems have to already be underway in order to have any chance of seeing results in time. If efforts in your state have foundered (or never really started to begin with), what are your options?

The first step would be to check the status of voting methods in your district. If you have used punch-card ballots in the past, there's a good chance you'll be using some kind of electronic system in November (optical scan systems, which combine the verifiable elements of paper ballots with the quick read of computer tallies, will generally not be changed). The website for your state of residence should have that information. Also, check VerifiedVoting.org, which is a clearinghouse of information about electronic voting and efforts to ensure its reliability.

In 41 states, voters can request a "no-excuse" absentee ballot. This means that the voter does not need to swear (under penalty of law) that he or she will be out of the area on election day, and can use the mail-in/drop-off ballot as a simple matter of convenience. Since absentee ballots are inherently voter-verifiable, voting in this way is a reasonable alternative to "black box" electronic voting. Some districts are specifically making absentee ballots available to people who do not wish to use DRE systems; observers predict the absentee turnout in 2004 will be double that of 2000.

Looking beyond one's own vote, the Verified Voting Foundation is sponsoring "TechWatch," a volunteer effort by technology specialists to monitor and document the integrity of electronic polls around the country. If you're a technologist interested in making sure that the elections are fair and reliable, you may be perfect for TechWatch:

TechWatch volunteers will receive training and participate in important non-partisan election monitoring activities, observing and documenting:

  • Logic & Accuracy testing of voting technology by election officials prior to Election Day
  • Poll Watching on Election Day (assigned to a single polling place or central election office)
  • Election Incidents on Election Day (on dispatch from an Election Incident Reporting system to polling places within a given county)

    By applying technical expertise to mind the polls, TechWatch volunteers can chronicle election problems at this upcoming election and future elections, as well as for follow-on litigation and policymaking, in a way that most poll watchers cannot.

  • The strength of a democracy is shown not in how a candidate wins, but in how a candidate loses. In a strong democracy, the losing candidates know that, in a set number of years, they will be able to try for that position again in a fair contest, and will accept defeat relatively gracefully, without violence. But it must be a fair contest. Election integrity is the cornerstone of a strong democracy.

    This may be the most important election of our lifetimes. It's up to all of us to make sure that the results, no matter what they say, are fair, honest, and trustworthy. It wouldn't take too many malfunctioning devices, lost records, or grossly inaccurate counts to send the entire election into the courts -- or into the streets.

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