Putting the 'E' in Elections

November ballots mark the most widespread use of electronic voting technology ever.

by / December 20, 2002
On Nov. 5, voters in Boston stepped behind curtains and pulled levers on voting machines so old their manufacturer is out of business. When one of the 900-pound clunkers breaks down, city officials have to scavenge for parts. At the same time, millions of Georgia voters cast ballots using touchscreen technology, which, despite a few glitches, worked, and voting proceeded without much difficulty.

Two years after one of the most infamous elections in American history, state and local governments were still sorting out voting priorities. Although some jurisdictions clung to old ways, a number of jurisdictions plunged ahead and adopted new election technology. In November 2002, the results of those investments were on full display during the midterm elections for local, state and federal candidates.

In the 2000 election, most attention centered on Florida, where massive problems with punch card ballots led many county officials to scrap the old paper-based voting method and replace it primarily with touchscreen technology. Although a handful of the new machines malfunctioned in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, for the most part, voting by computer worked smoothly, according to county officials and media reports. Incorrectly calibrated machines and disabled computer screens were some problems reported by the press.

Touchscreen voting also took place for the first time in counties in California, Washington and Maryland. Six counties in Florida, California and Washington used Sequoia Voting Systems' touchscreen technology without having to marshal massive numbers of poll workers to help, according to Kathryn Ferguson, the firm's vice president. "Frankly, counties should expect it to be possible to conduct touchscreen elections without mobilizing thousands of people to prepare and activate the voting machines," she said.

Computerized voting was the most widespread in Georgia, which spent $54 million to equip its 159 counties with more than 22,000 touchscreen voting machines from Diebold Election Systems. State officials deemed the new machines a success: Polls opened on time, and more than 2 million voters used the devices to cast their ballots. "We're excited with how the election went using the new technology," said Michael Barnes, assistant director of elections for the Georgia Secretary of State's Office. "It went like a regular election."

Some problems occurred, however. Terminals crashed, voter access cards jammed, and in one instance, a touchscreen machine highlighted a Democratic candidate whenever voters selected a Republican, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Recounting Electronically
Barnes said Georgia officials are confident the new system would provide a trustworthy audit trail for verifying the vote count if required. He compared Georgia's touchscreen machines with the old-fashioned lever systems -- used in Boston and hundreds of other jurisdictions in the country -- that rely on the turning of a metal wheel for physical evidence that votes have been cast. Those wheels don't always turn. "A number of times after an election, poll workers would open up the back of those machines and just see a bunch of zeroes where there should have been numbers showing how many votes were cast," he said.

But critics continue to express doubts about whether electronically cast ballots can be verified with the new technology. They point to the proprietary software used in the machines and the fact that no one can independently verify that ballots have been properly recorded, transmitted and tabulated.

Jim Adler, CEO of Votehere Inc., agrees that ballot verification is crucial. While pleased with how voting technology performed during the election, he cautioned that the real test will come if and when officials call for recounts to verify how electronic ballots were cast. "That's the issue with using technology to cast votes," he said. "Without a verification process that everybody trusts, e-voting will not mature." Adler added that because VoteHere's technology is patented, it can be scrutinized by independent experts. Other vendors use the technology in turnkey systems they sell to the public and private sector.

Optical Still Popular
Although touchscreen technology received the most attention during November's elections, optical scanning -- a hybrid of paper ballots and computer technology -- remains in wide use. In more than 1,200 counties, which represent 27 percent of the U.S. population, voters marked paper ballots by filling a box beside the candidate's name. Voters then fed the ballots into optical scanners that read and counted the marks. By comparison, approximately 510 counties -- less than 10 percent of the population -- used touchscreen voting machines, according to Election Data Services. Despite the growing use of e-voting technology, punch cards remained the most common method for casting ballots, being used by 32 percent of the population.

A study by The Boston Globe compared Boston's infamous lever machines with optical scanners, which are widely used in the rest of the state. State election records showed cities and towns that used lever machines had 60 percent more untabulated votes than the statewide average. When those communities shifted to optical scanners, the number of uncounted votes dropped significantly.

But voting technology firms say state and local governments won't see real advantages until they eliminate paper ballots. "In Arkansas and Minnesota, they ran out of ballots," Adler said. "That doesn't happen with e-voting." Computerized voting also can easily accommodate ballots in different languages and "read" ballots to blind voters with a text-to-speech feature. Georgia used that option on its touchscreen machines, and for the first time allowed blind citizens to vote without assistance.

It looks almost inevitable that lever machines and paper ballots will go the way of the buggy whip, due in part to legislation signed by President Bush in October 2002 that will update the nation's old-fashioned election procedures. The bill authorizes $3.9 billion in the next three years to help states purchase new voting equipment, train poll workers and establish statewide, computerized lists of registered voters.

Although some states see this as a chance to upgrade to the technology used in Georgia and parts of Florida, others see the legislation as an opportunity to open the door wider and set standards that will enable various new methods of voting, online being the most notable.

"It's a tremendous opportunity to set standards and do some innovative projects that prove the technology can work," Adler said. One possibility is to use computer technology to allow remote voting, a concept readily accepted in western states such as California, Washington and Oregon, where many citizens vote early or by mail. As long as the bar for standards is set high enough to ensure voter privacy, ballot security and verifiability, casting ballots via computers or wireless devices should be viable, he said.

In Swindon, England, Votehere's technology was tested in a local election where 11 percent of voters used the Internet and 5 percent voted by phone. Overall, the voting experiment boosted turnout by 3.5 percent compared with figures from two years ago.

Adler and others are convinced that voting via the Internet, phone and other electronic means will cross the ocean and eventually be accepted in the United States. "Voting is one of the core foundations of democracy," Adler said. "We must move forward responsibly to improve the process of elections."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor