As the nation wearied of post-presidential election news, a group of entrepreneurs was thanking their lucky stars that the frailties of Americas balloting system had at last been exposed. Upstart electronic voting companies had plans for a slow transition to new technology for the nations elections. But the protracted drama in Florida kicked that agenda into high gear.
Electronic voting takes several forms. In its most futuristic sense, it would mean that citizens could vote from home using their computers and the Internet. However, the technology for failsafe online security is not yet fully tested or available. But closed systems that electronically record votes on a remote or polling place server are now migrating to the government marketplace. Some feature touchscreen voting, and others employ navigational tools to mark an onscreen ballot.
Throughout the nation, dozens of demonstration projects utilized new technologies in the primary and general election. From mock elections for students to early voting in targeted cities, a variety of electronic systems were tested in high profile races. And, in an era when civic participation has waned, electronic voting could engage more citizens. In Arizona, for example, where election.com ran an electronic primary, voting numbers doubled over a previous record high.
In the midst of Decembers presidential uncertainty, companies were already enthusiastically demonstrating their products to governments. Some enter the digital age with a long history in elections, such as Texas-based Hart InterCivic . Hart, formerly known as E. L. Steck Co., pioneered the election business in 1913 as ballot printers and later branched out to supply an array of documents to governments. In September, the company rolled out eSlate, its first electronic product. Hart, like other vendors at a recent product show in Sacramento, Calif., was quick to point out the features of systems that promise to make a Florida-repeat impossible. For example, voters can review and change their ballot choices before locking them in. And there is no mistaking the final count: Electronic records and a hard copy of ballots are maintained for audit.
eSlate is a device about the size of a hardbound book with onscreen ballot display. Voters manipulate a dial on the eSlate pad that sends out subtle clicks each time a new choice is highlighted. This presents the voter with two sensory clues -- particularly helpful to people who are sight impaired. The pad also has tactile elements -- again to accommodate voters with disabilities. It is possible to roll back through the ballot and make corrections or changes. Once confident about their choices, the citizen casts his or her ballot. No dimpled, pregnant or hanging chads, no butterfly ballots or confusing selections that can result in double voting and ballot disqualification. Still, people are accustomed to paper ballots and there are concerns about a transition to electronic balloting.
"The concern is that there is no paper trail in the electronic systems," said Bill Stotesbery, vice president of marketing for Hart InterCivic. "But one can argue that there are billions of electronic trails that can be traced. Our system has imaging capabilities. These are things we need to educate people about." The eSlate system sells for about $2,500 per unit.
These features are also prominent among other vendors who are quick to address the obvious concerns about accuracy and the ability to conduct recounts. Other components of electronic voting include authenticating voter identity, ensuring security, allowing voters to verify that their ballots have been registered and counted, and making the technology accessible to all voters, regardless of physical abilities. Governments will simply have to choose which system, in the expanding field, is best for them. Already, there is variety.
FEATURES AND BENEFITS
Many vendors offer touchscreen voting backed by various methods for recording votes. VoteHere.net <
www.votehere.net>, a Bellevue, Wash.-based company, is launching an online system that will initially be used for early voting. "Until there is wide wireless connectivity," said Victor Woodward, vice president of business development, "it will be hard to do true Internet voting." However, his companys system simplifies early voting by eliminating the need for election officials to transport scores of different ballots to polls. All the variations reside online in the VoteHere system.
After being electronically identified, voters are given a "voter button," -- actually a smart chip containing a one-time digital signature -- that docks in a station connected to a garden-variety PC. The button pulls up the proper ballot that appears on the screen. The touch system wont let a person vote twice for the same office, presents a summary screen and offers the voter a chance to change his or her mind before casting the ballot. The ballot is then coded with 1,024-bit encryption that Woodward calls "virtually unbreakable." Votes are stored on redundant systems at data centers and forwarded to election officials. "There is no margin of error," he said. "But it is important for third parties and election officials to verify results. We supply a transcript of the entire election."
The companys technology was strong enough to attract a major suitor. In December, Compaq Computer Corp. formed a partnership with VoteHere.net -- adding the strength of its nationwide infrastructure to the product. According to Sherry Walshak, director of Compaqs state and local government division, the partnership results in an integrated system that responds to the major concerns about electronic voting. "The results can be re-counted, yet it preserves anonymity," she said. "There is encryption, an audit trail and recounting without anyones individual vote being compromised."
Election Systems and Software (ESS) voting systems also utilizes the Internet and stores data on a remote server. According to Guy Duncan, vice president of the companys Internet technology development, customer research guided how the system will be used. "Originally we printed a 10-digit ID and asked people to type the ID into the system," he said. "People didnt like typing and we moved to smart card technology." The system reads the number on the smart card and loads the ballot appropriate to the voter.
The ESS system uses touchscreen voting. Duncan believes that citizens will like this method because it requires no navigation. Once the choices on a screen are completed, the voter simply moves on to the next set of candidates or ballot initiatives. "You can put too much information on a screen and it confuses people," Duncan said. "We want to make it as simple as possible." The company has had presence in the elections market for 35 years and is headquartered in Omaha.
These, and other vendors who use standard PCs to log votes, say the method will save money for governments. There should be no need to purchase special equipment since desktop computers could be moved from government offices to be used in elections. Governments would be charged various licensing fees or per-user charges. VoteHere.net, an ASP model, plans to charge $3 to $4 for each vote cast and offers a jurisdiction the option of operating its own data center for a license fee.
Patriot, <www.unilect.com/advantgs.html> a touchscreen voting system, offers a central unit that is connected to booths cradling private screens. Again, it is not possible to cast two votes for the same office, the entire ballot can be reviewed and changed, and results are available in memory and by hard copy. The Patriot screen politely distorts the image for anyone except the voter standing in front of it. Results from the booths are transmitted to the central unit where tabulations are
kept and sent via modem to election officials. The cost is $2,200 per voting station and a control unit sells for $2,700.
Global Election Systems <www.globalelection.com> was a pioneer of optical-scan technology, beginning development in 1988. The Texas-based company brought its Accuvote system to the market in 1991. This technology scans manually marked paper ballots. "There is a certain percentage of people who like to have a paper ballot for an audit trail," said Larry Esminger, vice president of corporate development. "Then there are a number of people who prefer not to deal with paper for reasons of cost. They prefer interaction with the device itself."
For those folks, Global Election Systems developed a touchscreen system that was used in seven general elections across the country. The electronic voting stations cost about $3,200, each with an additional charge for a host computer that tabulates votes and provides a paper trail.
Electronic voting companies all offer variations on a main theme -- Internet-based voting, optical scanning, direct recording electronic systems and touchscreens talking to a server that is either on site or remote. For the newcomers, Harts Stotesbery has a cautionary message. "Anyone who jumps in now and thinks they are going to ride the wave to profitability will be surprised," he predicts. "They wont be in for long."
Of course, it hasnt just been new players in a new market. Along with Compaq, IT giants like Unisys, Dell and Microsoft have announced their intentions to join forces to develop a complete package of voting applications, including hardware, software and systems integration. Enter Diebold Inc. and IBM -- also announcing their intentions to enter the nascent market.
The new systems not only address some old problems, they offer opportunities to a group of Americans who have, in elections past, not been able to fully exercise their constitutional rights to vote in private. There are approximately 34 million potential voters with some form of physical disability in the United States. Traditionally, the percentage of people from this population who vote is significantly smaller than the general population of voters. Again, technology could welcome millions of people who have, in the past, been disenfranchised.
Those with visual impairments have often had to share their choices with another individual who physically cast their votes for them. So much for privacy and confidentiality. In Arapaho Colo., however, nine legally blind individuals voted using Harts eSlate, a highly tactile system. "They all told me it was the first time they had voted by themselves," said Keith Long, Harts representative at the Colorado polls. "We also had a quadriplegic man voting using a puffer-mechanism." Long said it was a moving experience for everyone involved.
Accessibility is generally a requirement for the certification of electronic voting systems in states. Some, like Hart and ESS, are certified in several states. To date, Internet-based systems like VoteHere.net have not been certified because of specifics in state election laws -- not because of accessibility issues. The company and others like them are working to revise codes that prohibit certification. Others are scrambling to make their systems compliant with accessibility requirements. These include the ability for a blind voter to either hear ballot information using headphones -- as in the Patriot system -- or use Braille keys to cast votes. Other systems are still integrating technologies that will create appropriate accessibility.
ELECTION REFORM LOGISTICS
There is no doubt that governments are taking a critical look at how they conduct elections. Although the specific activity generally falls under local control, many secretaries of state have stepped forward to announce that changes will be made. Some vendors hope that means states will financially support upgrades in election systems. Although California officials claim
the state could not experience a Florida debacle, Secretary of State Bill Jones quickly issued a 10-point reform plan that includes a request for a $230 million capital fund to update voting technology. His proposal -- which will have to be approved by the state Legislature -- included an "Election Technology Exhibition," in which vendors were invited to demonstrate electronic voting systems to state and local election officials. Not surprisingly, Florida has announced its intentions to modernize along with several other states.
Funding is perhaps the biggest impediment to automating the nations elections. In local jurisdictions, funds are generally targeted at the "concrete" infrastructure, rather than the electronic infrastructure. Florida seems to have changed those priorities. In California, Jones is actively promoting election reform by urging county boards of supervisors to endorse his statewide plan. He has also reached out to the state Legislature and has received bi-partisan support.
Even with state political support, counties will be financially pressed to make wholesale changes. Although the historic 2000 election may have accelerated the move to electronic and online voting, the costs in some states could be staggering. California has 25,000 precincts with an average of four voting stations at each site. The cost could reach $300 million. The elections office for New York estimates it would cost up to $160 million to equip its 15,000 precincts with new technology. In Michigan, where the Secretary of State has called for a blue ribbon commission to study the potential for standardizing the states voting systems, about 31,500 voting stations would be needed -- costing approximately $94 million.
Nonetheless, suppliers are optimistic. "I think theres going to be a dramatic difference in our industry and business," said Global Systems Esminger. "There will probably be more voting equipment sold in the next two or three years than in the last 10."
Vendors are hopeful that state, and perhaps federal, government will provide financial support to local jurisdictions. The 2000 presidential race was a wake-up call for election officials lucky enough to avoid the national spotlight. Knowing they might not be so fortunate the next time around, officials are opening the doors to voting technology, if not exactly rolling out the red carpet.
"Every company ought to be thankful that finally the attention is on how the system needs to be upgraded," said Harts Long. "If the federal government or the states make funds available, you are really going to see some changes."