The shift toward electronic voting technology has triggered debate over whether the technology is secure, and if not, how states and counties can afford to plug the security holes.

Driven by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which funds replacement of lever and punch card devices for new voting technology, many jurisdictions are replacing old voting machines with new electronic systems. These systems, called direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, meet HAVA's technology requirement allowing those with disabilities to vote independently. They're also considered easier to use -- for voters and precinct workers -- than the old equipment.

Surveys from early implementations showed voters were confident that DREs recorded their ballots accurately. Since then, however, a multitude of computer scientists and activists have contested paperless DREs.

Opponents fear that DREs are susceptible to bugs and tampering, saying the current technology fails to provide a paper audit trail so voters can verify their ballots have been recorded as intended. The security of at least one DRE manufacturer's programming code has come under fire from university researchers.

Security concerns prompted some states to require that DREs be modified to print a paper record that lets citizens verify their votes. In Congress, several bills would create a national voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) requirement. One bill proposed by New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt in May 2003 -- the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act -- while slow to warm up, has gained sponsorship from more than 100 representatives, including some Republicans. In early February, California Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced a bill similar to Holt's -- the Secure and Verifiable Electronic Voting Act -- that would also fund states for the addition of a printer to DREs.

But many county elections administrators see no need for a VVPAT and are concerned that such a requirement will add to the cost and complexity of elections administration during a historic fiscal crisis.

Voting Security or Voter Confidence?

At first, the notion that a hacker or computer malfunction could throw an election seemed only for the paranoid. It was more commonly referred to as an issue of "voter confidence." If many voters who currently show up and vote are part of this paranoid bunch who don't trust the machines, then maybe even fewer voters would appear at the polls in the future.

But recent scandals involving voting machine vendors caused decision-makers in states such as Maryland and Ohio to re-examine their DRE security. Maryland and Ohio ordered independent investigations after researchers at Johns Hopkins University questioned the security of programming code used by DRE manufacturer Diebold.

Reports by both states recommended that election officials and vendors make security enhancements, which Diebold said have since been made. The California Secretary of State's Office considered decertification of some Diebold systems when it found the vendor installed uncertified updates in several California counties. Several incidents where hackers infiltrated DRE vendor networks have also fueled doubts about the companies' abilities to truly secure the machines.

In 2001 and 2002, voter surveys showed that confidence in DRE accuracy hovered around 90 percent. In Georgia, where the entire state switched to DREs, a poll of 800 random respondents in December 2002 showed 93 percent were at least somewhat confident their votes were counted accurately, compared with 76 percent in 2001 -- before DRE implementation. In a few Washington counties, where electronic voting machines were piloted in late 2001, of 814 participants polled, 94 percent were confident their votes were recorded correctly.

Recent negative publicity, along with actions of decision-makers themselves, may be swaying public opinion from that confidence, said Dan Seligson, editor of electionline.org, a nonpartisan organization that provides information on election reform.

"That was a year and a half ago, before the movement and backlash against these machines really got to be a national thing," he said. "

Emily Montandon  |  Staff Writer/Copy Editor