David Dill is an educated man with a simple idea: Giving voters proof that their votes were counted correctly. ATMs have receipts, so why not print receipts for voters after they’ve used an electronic voting machine?
Dill launched VerifiedVoting.org in 2003 to promote the practice of giving voters and election officials a paper back-up to go along with the widely-deployed e-voting machines of the last few years.
The 2000 presidential election raised the interest in how we vote to an all-time high. After the hanging-chad debacle in Florida, federal legislators passed the Help America Vote Act, which included billions of dollars to upgrade election equipment and improve practices. The advantages of e-voting over the old systems include a faster process, ease of use and more accurate results.
A February report on the 2004 election by the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project attributes one million saved votes to improved voting equipment and procedures after the 2000 election.
Residual votes are ballots cast in which a voter fails to vote or machines fail to record them. In each election, a few people go to the polls but choose not to vote (experts estimate it to be about half of one percent). In the 2004 election, the residual vote was 1.1 percent, down from the 1.9 percent in the 2000 election.
While e-voting machines show provable results in some cases, discrepancies with their record keeping in recent elections have caused more public scrutiny and suspicions about the equipment that was designed to improve obviously flawed and outdated systems. Perhaps in the rush to adopt technology that was a vast improvement over levers and punch cards, the comfort of paper was too quickly overlooked.
Adding to this worry is a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice. While acknowledging that e-voting systems have yet to be infiltrated, the report cites the potential for systems to be hacked. Elections officials could gain the public’s trust of these new systems by using these guidelines:
• A paper trail. Both voters and officials need this assurance to independently verify the results.
• Uninterruptible power supply. An electronic power conditioner (think of a sophisticated surge protector) and a battery backup can keep systems running even if the power isn’t.
• Wired connections. Some states (California, Minnesota and New York) have banned wireless components from e-voting devices.
• Training. Poll workers should be required to train for a certain number of hours before working the polls.
• Well-designed forms. Just as poorly designed paper forms have confused voters, e-voting forms must be well laid out.
• Secured equipment. Stop “sleepovers,” periods of time before the election during which poll workers keep the machines, oft en at home. This only opens the process to potential tampering.
• Availability of paper ballots. In the uncommon occurrence of system failure, paper ballots can be used as a last resort.
In discussing e-voting with colleagues, one said he couldn’t understand why we don’t vote online. He commented that banks had figured out how to make online banking safe and asked: What’s more sensitive than people’s money? Obviously, voters would have to be authenticated. Another colleague suggested assigning each voter an ID number and allowing them to choose a PIN. Advances in biometrics also provide hope for authentication.
VerifiedVoting.org summarizes the goal of this debate well: “The right to have one’s vote counted properly is a cornerstone of our democratic system. Making sure that our election systems are reliable and publicly verifiable enfranchises voters and increases public confidence and participation in our political process.”