William Jackson | Voting system requirements should be technology-neutral

Cybereye'Commentary: Congress should stick to tradition and keep its voting requirements technology neutral.

With presidential election campaigns already in full swing and state primaries edging closer and closer to 2007, voting technology is likely to remain a hot issue with state and federal officials for the next 14 months or so. At least four bills have been introduced in the House and Senate proposing voter-assurance requirements for voting systems.

The mechanics of elections traditionally ' some say constitutionally ' have been left up to the states, but it appears increasingly likely that federal standards will be established to ensure some basic levels of security, reliability and accountability in systems used in national elections. Doing that correctly will be a difficult job because there doesn't seem to be any system available today that reliably and consistently meets the standards we would all like for our elections.

This is not a knock on increasingly controversial electronic voting systems. It applies to every voting method we have come up with, dating back to the pot shards used as ballots in fifth-century B.C. Athens.

Archaeologists have discovered caches of these shards premarked in the same hand with the name of a candidate for office or for ostracism. Apparently, helpful partisans were eager to assist fellow citizens who were having trouble deciding who to vote for or against.

A consensus is forming that if we cannot trust a single voting technology, we could improve security by pairing two systems to allow auditing and backup. Right now, the leading contender is paper paired with direct-recording electronic (or touch-screen) machines. Several states have required ' and the U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would require ' voter-verified paper audit trails.

I am all in favor of paper audit trails in electronic voting. But Congress has in the past wisely acknowledged that technology moves at a pace far beyond the government's ability to keep up and has regulated by specifying the result it wants to achieve rather than the tools to achieve them. Congress should stick to that tradition and keep its voting requirements technology neutral.

The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007 (H.R. 811) now before the House requires that electronic voting machines also generate a permanent paper ballot to be used as the official ballot for audits and recounts. This is all right in theory, but the committee report on the bill pointed out some serious flaws. The 2008 deadline for states to comply is unrealistic, and not nearly enough money is being made available for the effort. But most significant is the fact that it ties the states to paper ballots.

'We are not opposed to the idea of a redundant method of capturing vote totals; in fact, we welcome it,' the committee concluded. 'But we believe all avenues should be explored to accomplish duplicate capture of this information, not just paper ballots.'

I do not think that letting states or local governments choose their own method for backing up votes would have much of an immediate impact. There are several reasons why paper ballots are the best choice, at least for now:
  • It requires a different set of skills to tamper with paper ballots than to compromise an electronic voting system, so there is an added layer of security.
  • Tampering with paper ballots requires having separate accomplices at each polling place or precinct where votes are tallied.
  • Recounts of paper ballots can be done in public and are understood by the public.
  • Acceptable technology for printing and handling duplicate paper ballots exists now or is closer to development than other schemes.


For those reasons, I believe that a state required to provide a backup ballot to complement its digital voting system is likely to settle on some type of paper ballot. But there are a variety of ideas out there for accomplishing the same thing using a variety of cryptographic and other schemes, and they should be given a chance. Most of them probably will prove ineffectual or impractical and will come to nothing. But if some of them ' even only one ' can prove to be a real advance in voting, it should be given a chance to flourish.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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