Electronic Voting

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THE IMAGES ARE FAMILIAR: election-workers
slowly, methodically, holding ballot
papers up to the light, squinting,
announcing their considered judgment —
this one “Bush”, that one “Gore” — with
party lawyers sitting by ready to debate
‘pregnant’ chads, while the world looked
on, somewhat bemused that the election
to the United States’ highest office, one
with access to almost unlimited technological
resources, should come to this.
The spectacle was presumed to represent
a failure of American democracy: in previous
(presumed successful) elections, the
various television networks had been able
to ‘call’ the election some time late in the
evening, making the actual counting of
votes, as far as many were concerned,
merely a side issue, a matter of crossing
the t’s and dotting the i’s. Yet here were
votes on which the fate of the entire
nation hung, and the intent of many voters
was both unclear, and taking an
(unacceptably) long length of time to
In the end the Supreme Court stepped
in, stopping the recounts. The public
began to accept the ‘compassionate conservative’
from Texas as the 43rd President.
And Congress passed the ‘Help America
Vote Act’ (HAVA), which promised funding
to election officials for the purchase of new
equipment, as well as creating national
election standards in a number of areas.
There were other problems with the
voting system that could have been targeted:
the partisan processes that govern Congressional
districting, or the electoral college
itself, which muzzles and distorts the
popular vote. It was the spectacle of the
slow, tedious, recount in Florida, however,
which drew most attention from politicians,
stung by the barbs of late-night
Many Americans still don’t know that a
full recount in 2001 – paid for and overseen
by a consortium of major media outlets,
such as the New York Times – disclosed
that Al Gore would have won Florida,
and consequently the electoral college,
had the count been allowed to continue.
An increasing number, however, are awakening
to the fact that the electronic systems
that many districts have since introduced
would prevent such an independent audit
from being performed today. And many
now realize that the tedious process far
from being a sign of failure is an example
of the core elements of democracy in
action: a bureaucracy, open to inspection
by all, attempting to implement the will of
the people.
It is this – transparent implementation
of the public will – that ensures the legitimacy
of democratic institutions. Electronic
voting systems – in which voters enter
their choices directly into electronic computers,
through keypads, screens, or other
interfaces – are resistant to independent
public oversight for a number of reasons:
auditing of the code used to control computer
activity is a difficult and specialized
task; intellectual property law is often used
to stifle and prevent any independent oversight
of systems; and some jurisdictions
place legal barriers on audits or recounts.
This last is particularly insidious – the fear,
sometimes stated explicitly – is that an
audit will show flaws or stolen elections,
which authorities fear would damage faith
in the electoral system. Worse, perhaps, is
that whole-scale election theft can be much
simpler, and more difficult to detect, than
in analogue systems.
There are some advantages to electronic
systems. They can provide improved access
for certain voters, such as the blind,
through alternative interfaces. User interfaces
can provide on-the-fly checks for
under- and over-voting. There are, however,
other ways to provide these benefits, and
increased usability is of little benefit if it is
accompanied by a decline in confidence
that one’s voting intentions are reflected in
the vote that is eventually counted. It is
now widely accepted by activists that the
only way to provide trustworthy electronic
voting is through regular recounts and
Voter Verified Physical Audit Trails
(VVPAT), where the electronic record is
supplemented by a paper copy, produced
by the machine and approved by the voter,
with the paper copy trumping the electronic
record in any subsequent recount.
For many people, one of the most disturbing
aspects of electronic voting has
been the close links between voting
machine manufacturers and the Republican
party. Among the most prominent
examples are ES&S and Ohio-based
Diebold. Senator Chuck Hegal (R, NE) was
chairman and CEO of ES&S (a fact he
repeatedly omitted from FEC disclosure
forms) until shortly before his unexpected
election in 1996 – an election conducted
mainly on machines provided by ES&S. In
2003 the Ohio-based CEO of Diebold, one
of the leading providers of electronic voting
machines, circulated a letter to potential
Republican donors, promising that he
was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its
electoral votes to the president next year.”
Ohio subsequently became a key state in
Bush’s 2004 victory.
Several groups have published guides
on actions individuals can take to ensure a
fairer election this year:
2008 Pocket Guide to Election Protection
by Bev Harris, available online:
Count my Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to
Voting by Steven Rosenfeld, from Alternet

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