Mar 29 2007

Calling All Precincts

With the 2008 elections looming, e-voting picks up steam as election boards seek paper trails to be ready for recounts and system glitches.

With the 2008 elections looming, e-voting picks up steam as election boards seek paper trails to be ready for recounts and system glitches.

Leon County, Fla., chose optical-scan systems because the voters “want an audit trail” that the scanned paper ballots provide, Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho says.

Like it or not, electronic voting is here to stay. But the question is: Can state and local election agencies roll out systems that satisfy everyone — or at least enough people?

Consider last year’s e-voting technology use. During the November 2006 general election, 36 percent of the nation’s counties used direct-recording electronic (DRE) systems, according to Election Data Services. The Washington, D.C., consulting firm, which specializes in election administration, found that another 56 percent of counties used optical-scan equipment. In all, 84 million registered voters live in jurisdictions that used optical-scan equipment last year and 66 million in jurisdictions that had DRE systems.

By next year’s election, those numbers will no doubt rise as states and counties strive to return accurate election results quickly. Yet, the move to e-voting continues to generate controversy, headlines and questions about the security and integrity of the underlying systems.

Vote of Confidence?

E-voting’s detractors say its shortcomings include security vulnerabilities, recurrent equipment malfunction and the potential for voter fraud. The most recent elections included incidents of failed equipment and programming errors.

“There’s no way to audit most of the systems used, so there’s no way to verify accuracy,” says Bruce Schneier, a security analyst in Mountain View, Calif. “We believe the problems we’ve seen so far are all errors, but the real worry is malicious vote tampering.”

Schneier says the only way to protect against tampering is through a paper trail. “The electronic machines must print a paper copy of the vote, and that paper copy must be verified by each voter and then deposited in a secure box,” he says. “The machine provides a quick count, but if there is any problem or dispute, the paper ballot provides a more reliable backup.”

E-voting systems did not suddenly come on to the scene; some jurisdictions have used them for years. For example, Leon County, Fla., rolled out its first optical-scan devices in 1992 and has used them ever since. Last November, it launched its first touch-screen systems to comply with the Help America Vote Act requirement that systems be accessible to disabled voters.

For the November 2006 election, an overwhelming majority of Leon County voters chose to use the optical-scan systems, says Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections for Leon County in Tallahassee, Fla. Sancho says he prefers the optical system to the touch-screen devices because it can generate an auditable paper record in the event of a recount.

“I’m a proponent of verifiable voting; it’s clear to my constituents in Leon County that if they want an audit trail, they should vote on a paper ballot,” Sancho says. “With touch screens, there’s no way for me to transparently audit.”

Sancho says both systems performed well in the fall election. He says the county, which was in the vanguard of Florida jurisdictions adopting e-voting, has seen its residual votes — those not properly counted — drop since the introduction of e-voting and has low residual vote rates compared with other counties in the state.

Still, Sancho remains concerned that the newer, touch-screen systems lack an audit trail and pose other security risks. When testing the touch-screen equipment in December 2005, Sancho says he discovered that the electronic memory card in each system could be manipulated and results altered without detection. That led to several states temporarily withdrawing their certification of the device, he says.

“We need to develop a way to routinely audit our votes, verifying that election results were accurate prior to certifying our elections,” Sancho says.

Pilot Perfect

Routt County, Colo., began using an e-voting system at all polling sites last year and was pleased with the results, says Terry Barber, director of information systems and geographic information systems for the county. The system uses a wheel pad to let voters scroll through and select candidates, Barber says.

Tallying results was speedier and more accurate than culling votes using paper ballots, Barber says. “Computers don’t make mistakes — unless you’ve programmed them to make mistakes.”

The county spent $200,000 on its systems and expects to use them for the 2008 primary and general elections, Barber says. He also expects e-voting will save the county money in labor and paper costs.

“I don’t think you can go backward,” Barber says. He’s aware of the concerns others have with e-voting but says Routt County is confident its new systems are secure and accurate.

The major challenge is getting people accustomed to the systems. “Because it’s new technology, people will take a while to embrace it,” just as they did with automated teller machines in banks and scanners in retail stores, he says.

It’s not just the voters who need persuading. Many jurisdictions also remain leery of leaving behind their tried-and-true systems.

To make sure that systems meet some basic mandates, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in December 2005 unanimously adopted guidelines that significantly increase security requirements for voting systems and expand access for individuals with disabilities. The EAC is a national clearinghouse for voting information and reviews federal election procedures.

For the 2008 election, EAC intends to certify all voting systems to ensure that they meet the guidelines, which take effect in December 2007. From that point on, voting systems will no longer be tested against the 2002 Voting System Standards developed by the Federal Election Commission. EAC says states can adopt the guidelines before December.

Fine Print

The EAC guidance comprises two volumes, “Voting System Performance Guidelines” and “National Certification Testing Guidelines.” The performance guide details recommended features for accessibility, usability, software distribution, system setup validation and wireless communications. It also offers an overview on creating an independent verification system to produce a paper audit trail.

The testing guide lays out the criteria against which the commission will review systems. It also requires that vendors submit software to the National Software Reference Library, which will allow local election officials to make sure they’re buying certified versions of vendors’ products. As with many such certification programs, third-party testing organizations — accredited by EAC — will conduct the tests (see sidebar, Page 25).

The goal, according to EAC, of the new guidance and testing is simple: “Ensure that voting systems will be accurate, reliable, secure and accessible to all voters.”


Will optical-scanning machines or direct-recording electronic devices glean additional favor? Or will some other type of machine come to the forefront?

Regardless of the technology used, e-voting devices will be under greater scrutiny than in the past. The Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a national clearinghouse for information and review of procedures regarding the administration of federal elections, will soon begin testing various types of voting equipment, including e-voting machines, through independent testing labs.

In February, EAC, which was established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, voted to accredit iBeta Quality Assurance and SysTest Labs for the testing of electronic-voting machines. Three or four additional labs will likely be approved shortly, says Donetta Davidson, EAC chairwoman. The labs will test against both the 2002 Voting System Standards and the 2005 Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, according to EAC.

“For the very first time, the federal government is in the business of testing and certifying voting equipment and software,” Davidson says. “With these two voting system test labs on board, we will begin the process of testing voting equipment to ensure that these systems meet all of the requirements to ensure accurate and reliable elections.”

Three vendors have registered with EAC, Davidson says, and the next step will be to bring equipment into the labs. She says the voting systems to be tested include all types of equipment being used, such as optical scanning and direct-recording devices. “Anything that has any electronic part to it” will be tested, Davidson says.

Does Your E-Voting System Allow …

  • Public access to software to permit independent inspection for accuracy?
  • Independent testing of systems, including random spot checks?
  • Constantly updated standards for machines?
  • Scrutiny of manufacturers to ensure independence from parties and candidates?
  • Testing by an independent lab?
  • A mechanism for immediate Election Day inspection of suspected defective machines?
  • A mechanism for voter review of paper copies of ballots prior to casting a vote?
  • Preservation of those ballots for any required recounts?

The answer to each of these questions is “Yes,” according to the Association of Information Technology Professionals, which in 2004 issued pointers on smart e-voting systems.

Three E-voting Systems

  • Optical Scanning Voters darken bubbles on a paper ballot that is fed into an optical-scanning device. An optical-character recognition application translates the marks into code and stores the information in the system’s internal memory. When all votes have been cast, the system transmits the data to the board of elections for counting. The ballots can be archived for audits or recounts. The scanners can also be used for absentee ballots.
  • Direct-Recording Electronic Typically touch-screen systems, DRE machines transmit each voter’s choices from the on-screen ballot directly to a memory cartridge, disk or smart card. Some of the devices can notify voters if they make errors, such as choosing more than one candidate. Additionally, some DRE machines feed votes to a central system for tallying and reporting of results from multiple precincts.
  • Internet Balloting For Web-based voting, which prompts the most security and privacy concerns, voters can make selections from any computer with Internet access. Alternately, some jurisdictions have set up online voting systems at traditional polling sites. Internet balloting requires the use of unique passwords to give voters access to their ballots.

For 2006 General Elections, E-Voting Led in the Count

Type of voting equipment Counties Registered voters*
Number Percentage Number Percentage
Punch card 124 3.98% 5,166,247 3.03%
Lever 119 3.82% 17,356,729 10.18%
Paper 176 5.65% 653,704 0.38%
Optical-scan 1,502 48.23% 69,517,991 40.79%
DRE 1,050 33.72% 66,573,736 39.06%
Mixed 143 4.59% 11,154,765 6.55%
Total 3,114 100% 170,423,172 100%

*Registered voter counts are from the November 2004 general elections. Source: Election Data Services

Non-profit Votes for an Open and Closed Approach

In another effort to enhance electronic voting, the Open Voting Consortium is working on a system that would run open-source software.

The Granite Bay, Calif., organization wants all e-voting systems open to public scrutiny to ensure voter trust and reduce fraud.

The OVC system uses paper ballots fed through a scanner into a locked ballot box — saving the originals in case of a recount or audit. The group hopes to get its system certified and implemented in California by 2008, says consortium president Alan Dechert. The goal is to roll it out nationwide soon after its West Coast introduction.

He acknowledges that the effort faces some hurdles. “We have to figure out how to get these products into the marketplace,” Dechert says. Possibly, a vendor would be willing to build a system based on the group’s prototype, but OVC also is hoping it can persuade some existing vendors to convert their systems to open-source applications.

Both these approaches require “substantial efforts, but we’re making progress,” he says.