E-Voting: Will Your Vote Count?

Hardly a day goes by without electronic voting making headlines. In mid-July, voter-rights group Voter GA filed a lawsuit against the Georgia State Election Board opposing the use of electronic systems, calling them too insecure. In Texas, a state district judge refused to block the use of e-voting machines in Travis County’s upcoming November elections. And New York made headlines this spring when the U.S. Justice Department sued the state for failing to meet federal e-voting adoption deadlines.

Six years after the 2000 presidential election fiasco in Florida, the debate continues to rage over just how to run a truly fair and accurate election. This despite the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, a federal law that allocated $3.8 billion in hopes of solving the problem. The law mandates that each state upgrade to electronic voting systems and create statewide databases of registered voters. This, Congress promised, would ensure fairness to all voters, less ambiguity at the polls, accessible systems for people with disabilities and citizens for whom English is a second language, and quicker and more accurate vote tallying.

Laudable goals. But in Congress’ rush to spare the U.S. further embarrassment from hanging chads and confusing butterfly ballots, lawmakers passed HAVA—which included a deadline of January 2006—without considering the security of such systems, and offered little guidance as to how a digital elections process should be effectively conducted. The result: computer malfunctions that miscount votes or erase them altogether, inefficient security measures that leave systems open to the possibility of widespread voter fraud, and statewide registered-voter databases that are still riddled with errors. Voter activist groups have filed lawsuits against nearly a dozen states, claiming the systems are too unsafe to use. Independent studies revealing serious flaws in e-voting software—most notably, a recent study released by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice—have led Congress to hold hearings to determine just how safe
e-voting machines really are.

But the greatest damage may have already been done: the widespread erosion of U.S. voters’ confidence in their nation’s electoral process. “I suspect there are many thousands—maybe even millions—of Americans who don’t believe the results of some recent election or other,” says Congressman Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who has authored a bill that would standardize
e-voting practices nationwide. “We have to do everything we can to restore confidence in the mechanism of democracy.”

In an age when Americans seem more politically polarized than at any time since the Civil War, to say the stakes are high when it comes to electronic voting is an understatement. After all, voting is, as Thomas Paine wrote, “the primary right by which all other rights are protected.” So why haven’t we managed to create a trustworthy e-voting system? The answer is one CIOs have heard time and again, but has historically eluded the U.S. federal government: New technology systems, particularly those entailing a great deal of process change, require thorough upfront discussions that include technology experts before those systems are implemented, to determine exactly where vulnerabilities lie and how they can be shored up.

There’s no question that e-voting is flawed. All computer systems are. In fact, all voting systems are. But in the Digital Age, e-voting is a natural evolution in voting methods. And by adopting some common-sense checks and balances—such as a voter-verifiable paper trail, random post-election audits, parallel testing of systems on election day, and strict adherence to carefully crafted chain-of-custody procedures, the U.S. has an unparalleled opportunity to create a truly fair and accurate voting system. That is, of course, as long as taxpayers are willing to pay for it.

Next page: Early and Often: A History of E-Voting

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