Electronic Voting Machines: Not Really a Cure to the Hanging Chad


Sept. 29, 2006 — -- After Florida's hanging chad debacle in 2000, many states invested in what they thought would be an upgrade: electronic voting machines.

But already, several states have experienced problems with electronic equipment -- whether machine error, human error, or a combination of both. And many are now considering scrapping the new technology altogether.

In Maryland, where the recent primary election was marred by electronic voting problems, Gov. Robert Ehrlich is calling for return to old-fashioned paper ballots, and urging voters to vote absentee in the coming election.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- stumping in Maryland this week for Ehrlich's opponent -- backed Ehrlich on the issue. Richardson noted that his state had already returned to a paper ballot and optical scan system, and argued the nation should follow.

It's not just computer glitches that have officials worried. A growing chorus of critics is charging that electronic voting is highly susceptible to fraud.

At a Congressional hearing on Thursday, Edward Felten, professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, demonstrated how easy it is to break into a Diebold voting machine, with a widely available type of key used for office furniture, jukeboxes and even hotel minibars.

Felten showed lawmakers how -- in the space of a minute -- he could infect the machine with a virus, skewing the voting results. The implications, he warned, could be dramatic.

"Tampering with an old fashioned ballot box can affect a few hundred votes at most. But injecting a virus into a single computerized voting machine can potentially affect an entire election," said Felten.

Diebold has responded to Felten's criticisms by saying the machine he used was out of date, and that normal security procedures used by election workers would prevent such tampering.

In a statement, the company said: "Every voter in every local jurisdiction that uses AccuVote-TS should feel secure knowing their vote will count on Election Day."

Still, skeptics are questioning how good the security procedures actually are. In many precincts, election workers can actually take the machines home with them.

One of the biggest complaints made about electronic machines is that they have no paper trail to verify votes.

But upgrading machines to produce paper receipts is expensive: Georgia's secretary of state recently estimated that it would cost as much as $75 million to retrofit the state's nearly 25,000 machines.

And at Thursday's hearing, experts warned that paper records aren't necessarily trustworthy, either.

Keith Cunningham of the Ohio Association of County Election Officials told lawmakers that the paper printouts used in a recent Ohio recount were often illegible or missing altogether. He argued that electronic technology would improve over time -- comparing current machines to the Ford Model T.

Still, with one-third of all precincts nationwide slated to use touch-screen equipment for the first time this November, some in Congress believe a better back-up system is necessary.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J, has introduced a bill that would require all new electronic machines to produce a paper trail. In the Senate, Barbara Boxer, D-CA, has introduced a bill that would reimburse precincts for providing provisional ballots, giving voters the option to cast their vote on paper instead of on a machine.

But with lawmakers rushing to leave Washington by the end of the week, action on either measure before Election Day looks doubtful.