Electronic Design

Getting Out (Of) The E-Vote

Was your vote counted on November 2?

As President Bush is preparing to start his second term in the White House, stories of technical problems with electronic voting (e-voting) continue to plague e-voting machine manufacturers, election officials, and voters. Voters across the country reported more than 1000 problems with e-voting machines during the recent national election, most of which had to do with candidate selection. In most cases, voters who tried to vote for John Kerry said that when the e-voting machine asked them to verify their choice, it showed that they had actually selected President Bush.

What gives? It depends on who you ask. Most e-voting machine vendors and local election boards insist that the election went smoothly, or that there were very few, minor problems. Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins University computer science professor who last year uncovered security flaws in proprietary software of Diebold Electrion Systems machines, believes otherwise. "If we continue to use the kind of insecure (machines) that were used in this election," Rubin said in an online posting, "it is only a matter of time before somebody exploits them. And the worst part is, we may never know."

David Dill, a Stanford University professor who founded the Verified Voting Foundation, told National Public Radio following the election that, "We don't know what's happening inside the machine. We don't know what the visible errors are."

Web logs followed the election with their own concerns. "Fraud took place in the 2004 election through electronic voting machines," warned BlackBoxVoting.org. Indeed, there were glitches, and it's not completely clear how many were caught and fixed. An e-voting machine in Ohio (where they're still considering a recount of all votes cast in the state) added 3893 votes to President Bush's tally in one precinct of only 800 voters.

When the polls opened on November 2, voters in Hinds County, Miss., found their e-voting machines were down. They complained about waiting in long lines to use paper ballots and having to vote without adequate privacy. E-voting machines failed to count 436 ballots cast at two Raleigh, N.C., voting locations. Fixing a software glitch in Broward County, Fla., helped change the course of a statewide gambling issue, restoring more than 32,000 "yes," votes cast for the amendment. The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project found that some voting machines were set up and left in locked, but unguarded facilities. (This is why many jurisdictions don't allow elections to be held on the day after a holiday.) Election officials also found low battery messages on some machines, indicating the machines were not plugged in.

Will any of this be fixed? According to everyone involved, the problems will be solved. There's also a strong push for using some type of paper trail or confirmation of votes with e-voting machines. This means printers capable of providing a "receipt," or paper trail of recorded votes. Some vendors already offer printer terminals to record votes and Piebald, whose machines have built-in printers that produce only end-of-day tallies, is working on a prototype of a voting machine that creates a running paper record of each vote. Another e-voting machine manufacturer, Hart InterCivic, says it is developing a printer solution that will be ready for market next year. Other than the new printer, Hart InterCivic foresees no design changes in its eSlate System, although it expects to update its software to improve its security, usability, and functionality.

As for the Caltech/MIT project, those involved want better e-voting security, with more random testing of machines on election day. Another idea is adding an audio recording system to document voter choices and make e-voting machines more intuitive. They also anticipate future elections via the Internet, television, and mobile phones.

Meanwhile, the IEEE, under its Standards Press program, is working with Vote-Here Inc. founder and CEO, Jim Adler, to produce a book on e-voting security and voter confidence. Adler says the book will explain how technology can enhance electronic voting and prove that votes are counted properly. "My hope," states Adler, "is that the security solutions discussed in this book can help guide election reform, so that election leaders and voters might better understand the fundamental science of elections and the proper role of technology in providing transparent and audible elections."

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