Weekly Feature

Associated Press

Facets of the U.S. Presidential Election: The Voting Booth

January 08, 2008
by Liz Colville
A lingering issue from past elections is what goes on behind the curtain of the voting booth. From hanging chads to unreliable technology, vote counting and voting accuracy remain major concerns of all politically minded citizens.

Technology vs. Tradition

Electronic voting machines were introduced in many states as a result of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which aimed “to replace punch-card voting systems,” create the Election Assistance Commission, and more. The BBC reported on this shift away from traditional voting techniques, including 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, as outlined in William Poundstone’s recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, are creating a way for the risky technology used in electronic voting to have a paper trail of “receipts,” so each type of ballot is backed up by the other. On their Web site, the mathematician and computer programmer behind the techniques answer a flurry of questions from Times readers.

Great Glitches

Touch-screen machines were meant to “add clarity” to the voting process. Lever voting machines were ordered abolished by the Help America Vote Act, and the electronic method became highly favored in spite of clear flaws, leading the state of Florida to attempt selling off thousands of its machines. As this lengthy New York Times Magazine article notes, “in hundreds of instances, the result has been precisely the opposite: 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 mentions a Caltech-MIT study of December 2000 that attempted to analyze and rank various voting methods. The project ranked, among other things, 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%.)
PC World has several follow-up pieces in this series, including “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 on, this is still a popular talking point around 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.

The Next Step

In July 2007 the New York Times discussed the government’s aims for 2008 and beyond. They 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. In spite of the hope that the upcoming elections would use more sophisticated technology than the current touch-screen devices, Feinstein and others have said that it is “too late to make such significant changes without creating chaos” in 2008. This year’s available voting methods will likely vary greatly from state to state, and district to district.

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