William Jackson | The e-voting paradox

Cyberye'commentary: Problems electronic voting systems aren't all high-tech, and neither are the solutions

Cybereye columnist
William Jackson

Computer scientists and computer writers seem to worry a lot about the security vulnerabilities of electronic voting systems, particularly direct recording electronic (DRE) equipment. But some recent research indicates that security is not the biggest issue on the minds of voters.

Ballot design and system design matter to voters, but it is not the high-tech aspects that bother them, according to Paul Herrnson, director at the Center for American Politics and Citizenship and a professor in the Government and Politics Department at the University of Maryland-College Park.

Herrnson recently joined a panel discussion on election technology hosted by the D.C. Science Writers Association, talking about research done for his new book, Voting Technology: The Not-so-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot.' In field tests of different types of equipment and ballots, usability trumped security in voter concerns, he said. People don't like the squishy feel of membrane keyboards or glare on screens.

'The kind of ballot you use matters a heck of a lot,' he said, more than the presence of a voter-verifiable paper trail.

The issue of security and reliability in electronic systems ballooned since the disputed presidential election of 2000, in which Florida paper and punch ballots were disputed. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandated accessibility for voters, and state and local officials began adopting new technology to meet these requirements and distance themselves from troublesome paper ballots.

DRE machines and precinct-counted optical-scan ballots were the big winners in the change, said Eric Fischer, a senior specialist at the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service. CRS and Texas A&M University did two national surveys of local election officials, the first ever to be done of the people who actually run America's elections. It found that since 2000 the old lever machines and punch-card ballots have all but disappeared. Also on the increase are absentee balloting and mail-in voting.

Has this led to an improvement in our elections? It's hard to say. Some studies have found since passage of the Help America Vote Act a reduction in the residual vote ' the number of votes not cast for some offices on a ballot. But that is not necessarily a good measure of errors, Herrnson said. 'People are more likely to vote for the wrong candidate than to forget to vote' on a poorly designed ballot, he said.

One of the most interesting results of the CRS-Texas A&M survey was the satisfaction of the local officials surveyed. 'Everybody liked the reliability, security and usability of their voting system, no matter what it is,' Fischer said.

Yet electronic systems costing millions of dollars are being decertified in a number of states and a scramble is on to find a way to vote that will ensure the privacy and security of each vote cast.

The solution is not to ban electronic machines, said Michael Shamos, who runs the eBusiness Technologies program at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science and has a 27-year history of certifying voting systems.

Shamos is not a fan of the industry as it now stands. 'The least reliable product in the U.S. is the election voting system,' he said. Standards are lacking, the software is proprietary and training of election workers is inadequate. 'There should be no trade secrets in voting technology.'

But in the backlash against DREs, he is afraid the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. No one in a position of authority is willing to address the problem scientifically and look for a meaningful way to manage risk.

Personally, I am not a big fan of DRE systems that do not include a paper trail. But every other method of voting in our country's long and colorful electoral history has been broken, fixed, rigged and exploited. This, along with issues of usability and comfort, needs to be taken into account when we assess the risk in our elections and choose a voting technology to manage it. Don't let a quest for the perfect get in the way of the best we can do. We have a new president and Congress to elect this year.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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