A Vote of No Confidence

Thought the hanging chads of 2000's Florida recount were bad? Brace yourself.

To hear Rebecca Mercuri tell it, the 2004 presidential election looks, from a certain vantage point, a lot like an IT department in utter disarray. In fact, if it were up to her, IT would play virtually no part in November's elections, and would remain outside the ballot box until the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) gets it right.

CIO Insight: Why is e-voting such a mess?

Mercuri:There's been a lot of foot-dragging. The EAC wasn't actually appointed until December 2003, more than a year after Congress created it by passing the Help America Vote Act of 2002. And a technical commission wasn't chosen until this past June. The EAC needs nine months to come up with standards, and then it takes a year for the voting-machine manufacturers to get products ready. Meanwhile, the government has allocated $3.8 billion to purchase these new e-voting machines, but none of the machines that have been bought to date comply with standards, because there are no standards yet.

Here's an example: California has a law that requires you to hand recount 1 percent of the ballots and compare them against the computer totals. The new machines don't have any way to do that because they don't print out a receipt. In the counties that bought optical scanners, though, you can still do this kind of checking. Lo and behold, they discovered that these scanners were not calibrated to deal with gel pens, and missed all those votes.

Oh come on.

I'm not kidding. We have votes that vanish, and totals that make no sense when compared with the number of voters who sign the book on election day.

What about this November?

We can't have any confidence whatsoever in the elections. As many as 80 percent of the ballots are going to be counted by some form of computer. Of those, roughly 30 percent will be collected on fully electronic touch screens, while another 34 percent will be optically scanned. And we're talking about major swing states, like Florida.

Is there any solution?

My suggestion for the November election is that any county that has non- independently auditable voting systems should just not use them. They should run off as many absentee paper ballots as are there are voters, and count them by hand.

At a Glance

Background: Dr. Rebecca Mercuri began researching e-voting in the late 1980s when, while serving as a committeewoman in Bucks County, Pa., she learned the county was considering purchasing an electronic voting system. Mercuri later founded Notable Software Inc., a computer forensics and security consulting firm.


  • Ph.D., Computer and Information Science, University of Pennsylvania, Moore School of Engineering and Applied Science, 2001
  • Master of Science in Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, 1990
  • Master of Science in Computer Science, Drexel University, 1989
  • Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, Pennsylvania State University, 1979

    Career Highlights: Serving as an expert witness in the Bush v. Gore case of 2000 over the disputed Florida ballot recount, and before government agencies such as the U.S. House Science Committee.

  • This article was originally published on 08-01-2004
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