Election Issues

Associated Press

Election Basics: The Voting Booth

October 16, 2008
by Liz Colville
From hanging chads to unreliable technology, accurate vote tallying and reporting remain major concerns of all politically minded citizens. What really goes on behind the curtain of the voting booth, and what's being done to ensure that your vote really counts?

"[E]ventual breakdown or mechanical trouble is inevitable"

In July 2007, The New York Times reported that major changes in voting equipment have been delayed until 2010, as ordered by Senator Feinstein of California in her role as chair of the Senate Rules Committee. Feinstein and others have said that it is “too late to make such significant changes without creating chaos” in 2008.
But it is by no means sure that chaos has been averted. On October 16, 2008, the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause and Verified Voting released a 190-page report that scored all 50 states' ability to deal with voting machine problems. According to the report, "Most jurisdictions will survive November 4th without a major system meltdown; however, eventual breakdown or mechanical trouble is inevitable."

It's been eight years since the trouble-plagued 2000 election. Have we really made any progress since then?

Technology vs. Tradition

Electronic voting machines were introduced in many states as a result of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which created the Election Assistance Commission to update their voting equipment, which has generally meant replacing the old lever-operated and punch-card machines with new electronic systems. The BBC reported on this shift away from traditional voting techniques, particularly the punch-card ballot that often leads to a “hanging chad” (which occurred in Florida during the presidential election of 2000) making voter intent unclear. The BBC story illuminates several issues of 2000 and 2004, when disparate technologies throughout the country were faulty and created delays, and problems receiving absentee ballots further stalled the counting process.

Help Ahead?

The Rivest/Smith Antifraud techniques offer a way for the risky technology used in electronic voting to be backed up by a paper trail of “receipts.”  On their Web site, the mathematician and computer programmer behind the proposal answer a flurry of questions from New York Times readers in response to a January 2008 op-ed piece outlining one of the techniques.

Great Glitches

Touch-screen machines were meant to “add clarity” to the voting process. The electronic method became highly favored in spite of clear flaws, leading the state of Florida to attempt to sell off thousands of its machines. As a lengthy New York Times magazine article notes, “in hundreds of instances ... they fail unpredictably, and in extremely strange ways; voters report that their choices “flip” from one candidate to another before their eyes; machines crash or begin to count backward; votes simply vanish.”
In 2004, PC World discussed the “safety” of electronic voting machines, generally abbreviated as DREs (“direct recording electronic”) with an FAQ-based article on the system. The article refers to a Caltech-MIT study from December 2000 that attempted to analyze and rank various voting methods. Among other issues, the project looked at the number of “residual votes” (those that are erroneous and can’t be read), and found that paper ballots had the lowest error rate of all three prevailing types: electronic, optically scanned paper ballots, and the punch card variety that failed in Florida in 2000. (Not surprisingly, the “hanging chad” victims had the highest rate, at 2.5 percent.)
PC World has several follow-up pieces in this series, including 2004's “Is Open Source the Answer?" which discusses the possibility of an open-source operating system, such as Linux, on electronic machines, and examples of its success rate in practice. Four years later, this is still a popular talking point on the Web, especially on blogs and advocacy group sites like the Open Voting Consortium, one of the groups at the helm of this movement.
Do electronic voting machines improve the voting process? The “Top 10 Pros and Cons,” derived from government and nonprofit groups’ opinions on this question, are presented at this site. Some issues addressed by these opinions are accuracy, manufacturer bias, paper audits, disabled voters and hacking risks.

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