Debate slows adoption of electronic voting systems
Growing criticism has brought industry to a near-standstill
By Kirk Ladendorf
Sunday, June 13, 2004
Electronic voting, once hailed as insurance against any more hanging chad disasters, has become a target for a growing group of grass-roots activists who say the systems can't be trusted and are a threat to democracy.
In Austin and across the Internet, critics and some computer experts are spreading their convictions that electronic voting systems aren't secure and could allow elections to be hijacked.
The criticism has brought the fledgling electronic voting industry to a near-standstill. Election officials in several states have halted use of some systems and required new testing and changes for others.
The debate is playing out in Austin, home to one of the four major voting system companies as well as a group of women who have put up seven billboards around town declaring that "new electronic voting machines are easy to hack."
The women say they are laying the groundwork for a lawsuit against at least one electronic voting system in Texas in an attempt to force changes in time for the November presidential elections.
"We are not willing to let this election take place with what we know is out there right now, which is voting systems that aren't safe," said Abbe Waldman DeLozier, a real estate broker and veteran of local environmental campaigns.
"We know for a fact, after what we have learned and read, that there will be millions of votes lost in this election," she says. The problems, she said, could make the Florida 2000 election "look like a picnic."
The emotional debate makes Austin entrepreneur David Hart shake his head. He is chairman of Hart InterCivic Inc., which makes the eSlate, a system used in about 30 counties nationwide, including Travis.
Though the eSlate technology is different than the systems at the center of the controversy, Hart has felt the effect. Sales have slowed. Modifying e-voting systems to produce paper ballots and passing exacting certification tests will slow the adoption of systems in Ohio, by more than a year, Hart says. California and other states are making similar demands.
"It is hard not to take this personally," says Hart, whose family business has sold election materials and technology in Texas for over 90 years. "The implication is, we are dumb. The implication is, we have shoddy workmanship, we are in over our heads, we can't be relied upon, and we are not trustworthy. That's hard to take."
"One of the most tragic things that has happened is that this whole election process has become politicized," Hart adds. "I can't think of a worse scenario for the country."
31% in U.S. can e-vote
Electronic voting systems have been around for more than two decades, but the big surge came after the Florida election fiasco in 2000. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which provided $3.9 billion in federal money to help counties buy new voting systems.
Much of that money has gone into electronic voting systems, which are now used in 675 counties with 48.4 million registered voters, nearly 31 percent of the electorate. Thirteen Texas counties have the systems, including Harris, Travis, Bexar, Tarrant, Brazos and El Paso.
The systems promised many benefits. With no paper ballots, they would eliminate confusion over misplaced check marks or incomplete punches.
With touch screens or simple dials and buttons, they allowed people with disabilities to vote in private, without an election worker doing it for them. They made it easy to produce ballots in multiple languages in areas with large immigrant populations. Votes would be counted much faster.
But in the rush to buy the systems, problems have cropped up, some of them due to system failures and some due to lack of sufficient training of election workers.
There have been foul-ups and malfunctions in California and Florida. Computer scientists who studied some systems found security flaws.
Many of the doubts involved systems made by Diebold Election Systems, based in McKinney. Computer scientists have found numerous shortcomings in the company's touch screen systems, including bug-ridden software and sometimes blurry screens that could mean votes were miscast.
Last year, Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell further riled the critics when he sent a fund-raising letter that said he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes" for President Bush.
The opposition includes Truemajority.org, founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream fame; Democracy for America, an outgrowth of the Howard Dean presidential campaign; MoveOn.org; the Verified Voting Foundation; and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Many of the groups maintain they are nonpartisan, but several of them support social and political causes identified with the left.
The debate has spread even to the venerable League of Women Voters, where some members are agitating for the national leadership to endorse demands that electronic systems include a paper audit trail.
That's what many of the critics want: a paper back-up that would be reviewed by voters before the electronic ballot is cast and that could be used in recounts and election audits.
"Our concern is that all voters should have their votes recorded as they intended and the votes must be verifiable," says Will Doherty, executive director of the Verified Voting Foundation.
Paper trail peeves
But returning to paper introduces some new complications, among them: What happens on election day if the printers fail, as printers often do? How do you prevent tampering with the paper ballots?
"Some of these (critics) don't know anything about voting history. The reason we have voting machines in the first place is because of the abuses of paper ballots," said Michael Shamos, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Shamos has investigated numerous systems and looked into a few purported electronic voting frauds. "There is absolutely no evidence" that an election has been thrown by fraud in an electronic system, he said.
The nightmare scenarios that critics raise can be prevented with improved testing procedures, he said.
"It is easy in a laboratory to write a program that throws an election," Shamos said, "but you don't have elections in a laboratory."
At Rice University in Houston, computer scientist and security expert Dan Wallach is among the electronic voting skeptics. With researchers at Johns Hopkins University, he co-authored a study last summer that found numerous security flaws in the Diebold system. The researchers didn't look at Hart's system.
"These new systems make it cheaper and easier to manipulate elections than it ever was with the paper-based systems," Wallach said.
Wallach says the Diebold system and others are vulnerable because of inadequate software security, programming errors and potentially rogue programmers. A paper ballot, he said, would serve as good insurance against problems.
"We have a lot of evidence of things going wrong," Wallach said, "not because of manipulation, but because of bugs in the software."
State and local election officials say they have no intention of changing electronic voting procedures in Texas, especially with a major election just six months away.
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir says she and her election staff are pleased with Hart's eSlate system, which cost the county just more than $5 million. The system went into use last year and has been subject to numerous tests, audits and a few recounts. DeBeauvoir says she continues to listen to the critics but wants concrete proof of problems and not just hypothetical concerns.
"Most people don't understand the precautions we go through," she says. "The audits and the testing are very thorough."
David Beirne, spokesman for the Harris County clerk's office, says the changing demographics and increasing complexity of elections in that county makes paper and punch-card ballots impractical. The Hart system allows the ballot to be available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. In Orange County, Calif., the Hart system was programmed in five languages.
Texas Secretary of State Geoff Connor says he is comfortable with e-voting technology and plans no immediate changes in rules that affect the systems. He adds that he will be watching closely next year when the newly formed federal Election Assistance Commission is expected to issue guidelines on electronic voting equipment.
That doesn't satisfy DeLozier or her friends and fellow activists, Susan Bright, Vickie Karp and Genevieve Vaughan. The women know each other through personal friendship and involvement in environmental campaigns.
Karp heard about the concerns a year ago and did some research, then alerted Dozier. Another member of the group donated $4,900 for the billboards. Those will come down this week.
Because the women and other activists have been unable to get state and local election officials to change e-voting systems and procedures, they are getting set to go to the courthouse.
"We have no other choice but to go to litigation," DeLozier says. "It is our last resort."
Hart executives say they hope the emotion over the issue dies down after the November election and the discussion takes on a less apocalyptic tone.
Hart and his CEO, Britt Kauffman, say their 160-employee company is in good financial shape, but they are watching spending carefully and postponing adding sales personnel or software developers until the storm passes.
"We've got to get through November," Kaufman says. "Getting the national election over with takes a lot of the emotion out of it."