The last presidential election hung by a chad, and intense scrutiny of manual voting systems exposed inherent weaknesses. More recently, California's recall election was briefly on hold as a lower court ruled that manual systems still in place in the state could disenfranchise voters by inaccuracies. That ruling was overturned, the election proceeded, and the vote was not close enough to be affected by the margin of error. Nevertheless, as electronic systems are plugged in for the next general election, concerns mount that these machines, and the votes they tally, could somehow be manipulated.
Consider Maryland, for example. The state decided to spend more than $50 million to place Diebold machines in 19 counties. A few days later, researchers from Rice and Johns Hopkins universities announced that the machines' computer code was vulnerable to tampering. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ordered SAIC to review the allegations. After the review was completed, Gov. Ehrlich announced that the purchase would go forward as planned, and Diebold announced some additional security measures.
Then, this Monday, the Maryland General Assembly ordered its own review of the machines, and a "review of the review," conducted by SAIC, to look for "outside influence." Leading the campaign for the review are Democrats, Senator Paula C. Hollinger and Delegate Sheila E. Hixson.
Charges of bias have been made on each side. A university researcher in the original study was reported to have a conflict of interest -- an un-exercised stock option in a competing voting machine company. SAIC and Diebold, according to an article in yesterday's Baltimore Sun, are both members of the Information Technology Association of America's Information Security Committee, and a former SAIC president sits on the board of a company that competes with Diebold.
With political rivalries, competing companies and vested interests all jumping into the fray, these investigations will undoubtedly produce more smoke than light. Nevertheless, the issue of security, reliability and fairness is essential and must be resolved. And no electronic voting systems should be employed unless they leave a verifiable paper trail that can be audited. Otherwise the next election -- conducted on electronic systems -- could make the rancor of the last presidential election seem like a tea party.