Cybereye: Avoid the rush: Worry about 2006 elections now

William Jackson

The issue of voting technology has largely disappeared from the public agenda since the November elections. But addressing questions about electronic voting now will help keep them from becoming crises in the fall of 2006.

That's why the National Institute of Standards and Technology is scheduled this month to draft the first federal guidelines for voting systems. NIST is developing the guidelines under the Help America Vote Act, passed in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential election.

The security and reliability of electronic voting, especially direct-recording electronic voting machines that record and store votes without any paper ballot, became a heated issue in the summer and fall of 2004. In congressional hearings, court cases and news articles, critics and proponents of the technology expressed concerns and offered assurances, mostly when it was far too late for the debate to have any effect in the precincts where the machines already had been bought.

Proponents argued that electronic voting is simple and efficient, provides maximum access for the disabled and is at least as reliable as other forms of voting, including punch cards and paper ballots.

Critics warned that even simple IT systems are prone to software flaws and malicious tampering, that it is difficult if not impossible for third parties to ensure the quality of proprietary software and that the threat of undiscovered ex- ploitations could undermine confidence in the electoral process. At the very least, they said, a paper trail is needed to ensure meaningful recounts in disputed races.

The 2004 presidential election went off without a crisis, but not without hitches. No widespread electronic fraud has been proved, but problems with tallies from electronic voting machines were reported in some precincts.

Unfortunately, the absence of clear-cut fraud in 2004 proves nothing about the security of electronic voting. As critics point out, the lack of obvious problems in DRE technology does not prove that there were not undetected exploits, or that vulnerabilities would not be exploited in future elections. This ensures that the questions about the security of electronic voting will re-emerge in the 2006 election cycle.

Whether you believe that electronic voting is a viable option now or that work remains to be done before it can be trusted with electoral decisions, one thing is clear: Public confidence in the systems used is critical to a fair and meaningful election.

The federal government historically has stayed out of the nuts and bolts of casting ballots and counting votes. The Help America Vote Act is its first foray into this area, and the NIST guidelines are the first product. NIST next month will begin a one-year evaluation of voting equipment used in the 2004 election to establish benchmarks for its next generation of guidelines.

These guidelines are voluntary, but they are an important first step toward establishing needed standards. The issue is as critical today as it was in 2004, and the public interest will not be served by periodic flare-ups of concern in each election cycle. A thorough review of the guidelines and their prompt adoption by states could help smooth future elections.

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