The 2000 presidential election crisis sent states scrambling to buy direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines to eliminate hanging chads and other paper ballot hazards.

Yet several states endured a recent barrage of bad publicity from DRE voting malfunctions and security vulnerabilities. DRE voting typically allows a citizen to vote by touch-screen. The machine records and counts the votes electronically, which, according to advocates, makes it stunningly accurate and eliminates most voter errors.

DREs potentially resolve common paper-ballot errors, such as voters not voting in a particular race, or voters selecting numerous candidates for one position. However, before the 2006 midterm elections, poll workers in several states had trouble running the machines and often reported voting irregularities.

These difficulties lowered expectations for DRE voting in some communities, but the midterm elections passed without major problems.

DRE machines performed admirably across the nation in most cases, said Doug Lewis, director of the National Association of State Election Directors. Local election managers declared the machines a triumph, and the topic disappeared from most news pages.

Polls nationwide appear to have seen the worst of the DRE transition, but some observers say election officials may be resting too easily now.

Maryland's 2006 primary in September endured so many technical failures with its Diebold voting machines that Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. announced he'd vote absentee in the November general election. Thousands of voters followed suit. And in Sarasota County, Fla., polls reported glaring irregularities with a high-profile congressional race.

Numerous computer scientists continue to warn against the vulnerability of DRE machines to malicious software that could fix elections.

Eliminating Errors

A vote people can't see or touch still makes many nervous. Much criticism of DRE machines revolves around the lack of a paper trail or tangible documentation. But inaccuracy and fraud have plagued paper ballot tabulation for ages. Problems typically grab voters' attention after close or controversial elections.

The federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) gave states funding to update their voting equipment. The law sent states scrambling to buy DRE machines.

The concept wasn't exactly new, however. Some voters have used certain forms of e-voting machines since 1979, said Michael Shamos, computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

"We've been using them in Pennsylvania since 1984," Shamos said. "The advocates who argue against DRE voting make it sound as if it's a brand new thing that we rushed into because of HAVA. They don't tell you that we've been using them for a very long time."

Fairfax County, Va., introduced the Shouptronic voting machine in 1981 and used it until 2002. This early DRE system looked like a traditional lever machine except voters pushed a button next to a candidate's name on a backlit screen. The machine then recorded the choice to a computer hard drive. The machines used memory cartridges, backup batteries and they printed paper tallies to protect the votes.

Most say a DRE voting machine's primary selling point is that it drastically reduces voter error -- the source of the 2000 Florida crisis.

"Electronic voting machines provide a tremendous amount more guidance through the ballot," Shamos said. "They can warn you that you haven't voted for a sufficient number of candidates by giving you a message flashing things in red. They give you a chance in the end to review your whole ballot and alert you that you've made a mistake. They can present the ballot in very large type for people who are visually impaired. They can display the ballot in multiple foreign languages -- all kinds of things just not possible with paper."

Florida ... Again

Still, some counties reported irregularities with DRE voting machines after both the 2004 and 2006 elections. Observers emphatically profess the need to identify the remaining

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.