E-voting: What Will it Take For a Smooth Election?

Despite progress in e-voting technology, Tuesday's U.S. election saw scattered reports of problems with some systems

Tuesday's U.S. election may not be long remembered for widespread problems with voting systems, but there were at least scattered reports of problems with touch-screen or optical-scan voting machines, many compounded by record turnouts in some jurisdictions.

Amid those scattered, if not widespread, reports of problems with electronic voting, critics of e-voting machines said there's still work that can be done to improve the voting process and voting technology. And the nation's top election official said she's confident that voting systems can be improved and that elections can run more smoothly.

The U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), established by the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), hopes to start certifying electronic-voting machines next year, said Rosemary Rodriguez, chairwoman of the EAC. The EAC launched a new program to certify the integrity of e-voting machines early in 2007, and some e-voting machine vendors have complained that the commission is moving too slowly to certify machines.

Six e-voting vendors have pending applications for certification, with the earliest application in February 2007, and the EAC hasn't yet certified any of them. But Rodriguez said the EAC is taking its time to make sure its certification program is extensive and focused on the right things. "We're not going to apologize for being thorough," Rodriguez said in an interview.

There were early reports of voting machine breakdowns in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with touch-screen machines having problems in some areas and optical scan machines with problems in other areas. There were also reports of voter databases not being up-to-date in Ohio and other states.

Generally, local voting officials seem to have been prepared for large turnouts and potential problems, Rodriguez said. However, there is room for improvement, and one of the EAC's focuses next year will be on voting machine certification, she said.

It may not be realistic to "expect perfection," she said. "It may never be perfect, but it will not be for lack of trying on our part."

E-voting vendors played down the reports of machine problems Tuesday. "It is an exceedingly quiet day for our team," said Michelle Shafer, vice president of communications and external affairs at Sequoia Voting Systems.

Some elections observers seem to want a level of perfection that's not possible, added David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade group representing e-voting vendors.

"We are not seeing widespread problems with any of the voting machines themselves," he said. "Every election is going to have its own individual challenges, but today's election is performing very well regardless of the doomsday expectations bantered about within the press. One thing to point out is that a few reports have focused on issues that pertain to the ballot layout and setup of contests rather than the performance of the machines themselves."

Asked if the U.S. Congress should enact new standards for e-voting, Beirne disagreed. First, the EAC needs to act on the certification applications it has, he said.

"Congress and policy makers can adopt as many requirements for standards as they like, but until such time that they recognize the challenges the industry is facing with our ability to certify current product upgrades, it makes no difference how many versions of new voting system standards are mandated if we are unable to bring those new products to the marketplace," Beirne said.

Brian Chess, chief scientist at software security vendor Fortify Software, disagreed, saying the U.S. still needs to make major changes. The U.S. needs "fully tested voting machines that reliably perform their functions, backup plans and well-trained poll workers," he said. "We are already hearing about unreliable machines, both DRE and optical scan, failing and causing long lines."

Chess called on Congress to pass "strict national standards on security" for e-voting machines. "We need to test ways the machines could fail and the reliability of the machines in a true election environment," he said. "We also need to write the standards to make the vendors responsible for the behavior of their machines, including the off-the-shelf components ... and when procedures break down."

Those standards need to be binding, he added. "No voting machine that fails to meet them should be used to cast a vote for our president."

The real question is whether fixing voting systems will be a top priority, even with "quite a few" reports of voting problems Tuesday, said longtime e-voting critic Eugene Spafford, chairman of the U.S. Public Policy Committee of the Association for Computing Machinery. "The question comes down to, how much are we willing to spend, and how confident do we want to be in the results?" said Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue University.

In some cases Tuesday, problems with optical scan machines seemed to be connected to rain. Voters brought moisture into the polling places and the optical scan machines jammed because of damp paper, he said. In other places, voters raised questions because their ballots were put in boxes waiting to be scanned instead of scanned immediately, he said.

Those problems may have been predictable, but a lot of the problems center around training of poll workers, many of whom aren't familiar with the technology, Spafford said. More extensive training will cost money.

In other cases, any problems with voting machinery were compounded by record voter turnouts. Several states have moved to allow early voting, and other states may want to consider it, Spafford said.

In the rush to adopt new voting technology following problems with paper ballots in the 2000 elections, many states adopted unproven technology, he added. While most states that purchased touch-screen voting machines have since moved to include printouts with those machines, other states have switched to optical scan machines.

Three states, Maryland, Tennessee and Colorado, will move to some kind of paper backup in coming elections. But that still leaves 15 states where touch-screen machines would be used without paper backups, and replacing or reconfiguring those machines would cost millions of dollars.

The U.S. government is facing major challenges in coming years, even if Democrats generally sympathetic to voting reform issues add to their majorities in Congress, Spafford said. "We have so many other pressing national concerns that are going to require attention first," he said. "We have so many issues, I wonder whether this will bubble up high enough to get addressed soon. It needs addressing."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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