It’s 2 a.m. on November 3. The polls have been closed for hours, but the election has yet to be called. Around the country, reports of snafus with new electronic voting machines have been pouring in; no one is sure how these problems have affected the results. In Maryland, machines failed to boot up, and voters were turned away for hours. In South Carolina, officials bought machines too late for adequate testing, and on many of the onscreen ballots, the presidential contest included names of candidates from local elections. Several Texas counties are thousands of votes short because a bug in the software failed to record Spanish-language ballots. Pundits are already clamoring for a recount potentially larger than that of 2000.
But this time, there will be no hanging chads to contend with. In fact, for hundreds of thousands of votes, there will be no paper record at all. Ballots cast on many of the new touch-screen machines disappeared into computer memory or onto smartcards, leaving behind no paper trail to audit. Officials can print the results that have been saved in the machines, but there’s no way to know if that’s an accurate reflection of the votes that people actually cast. Adding to the chaos, one network news reporter has received a tip that mercenary hackers were hired to alter the code of a particular brand of machine so that every 10th vote for Candidate A was recorded as a vote for Candidate B. Meanwhile, in Colorado, another group of hackers is boasting that they stole a box of electronic smartcards used to activate e-voting machines and reprogrammed them to allow multiple votes, just for fun—the way someone might hack a videogame. Or, in 2004, a presidential election.
This is a worst-case scenario, but it’s not a fairy tale. When one third of the country’s voters walk into booths containing electronic voting machines this November, many of them will have no idea if their vote is being recorded accurately or if it is being lost to malfunction or fraud. “I don’t think the technology exists to make entirely trustworthy [electronic] voting systems,” says Stanford University computer scientist and e-voting expert David Dill.
Why? Put simply, e-voting machines are computers, and as we well know, computers sometimes fail. When those failures occur, there is often only the highly fallible digital record to rely on, because adding a paper trail was deemed too expensive or unnecessary. Several grassroots groups are working to prevent an election-swinging symphony of disasters like the scenario above, but there’s just no way to fix, test, and secure all of the tens of thousands of e-voting machines in time. This presidential election may well be a crapshoot.
Welcome to the age of high-tech voting.
From Bad Paper to No Paper
Ironically, it was the ambiguity of the old-fashioned paper trail that forced officials to put their trust in electronic machines. After the 2000 election hung literally by a chad, Congress passed the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). It included a $3.9-billion payout to improve the country’s voting infrastructure, with most of that aimed directly at converting those pesky punch-card devices into shiny new e-voting machines. The catch: States that wanted a piece of the pie would have to upgrade before 2006. Historically accustomed to a chronic lack of funding, state elections officials were eager to bring the voting process into the 21st century. “There was a mad rush to go to [e-voting machines] in the wake of HAVA,” says computer scientist Michael Shamos of Carnegie Mellon University. “But people didn’t know the machines. They didn’t have a clue.”
When local officials turned to the government for guidance, they were met with bureaucratic buck-passing. HAVA outlined no technical guidelines for the new machines. Instead it created a body called the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) to do that. In June of this year, the EAC created another group, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC), which is just beginning its efforts—the group met once in July and once in September. Election officials wound up with a lot of acronyms, a pocketful of money, and no advice on how to spend it.
Without a formal process for vetting machines, officials in nearly 30 states were charmed by presentations from top
e-voting vendors such as Diebold, ES&S, Sequoia and Hart InterCivic, which were happy to step in and provide their own brand of expertise. For them, HAVA meant sales.
The most popular e-voting machines are called direct recording electronic devices, or DREs. They usually look like large flat-screen computer monitors, sometimes with a few navigation buttons along the side. Eager to get away from the confusing “butterfly ballots” of 2000, officials were excited by the idea of voting machines with easily readable touchscreens that anyone could use. What could be simpler than stepping into a voting booth and touching the places on
a screen where you want to make a check mark? On most models, there is even a big “vote” button to press to submit your ballot. The “direct” part of DRE means the votes go directly into the computer’s memory, but companies such as Diebold and ES&S assured state officials that their proprietary software and foolproof designs would make the election run smoothly, even without a paper trail.
In virtually every state, officials failed to invite outside technical experts to participate in the process of e-voting machine selection. (The voting rights group Texas Safe Voting Coalition discovered a videotape of a meeting of voting officials and Diebold representatives in which one confused official is heard saying, “I just want to make sure this machine can add.”) Without input from the tech-savvy, elections officials did what most consumers do when they go to an electronics store to shop for a new gadget: They listened to what the salespeople said and hoped they were telling the truth.