The downside of electronic voting machines
As next year’s presidential election approaches, the memory of
Florida’s 2000 debacle with the infamous hanging chad lingers. With
the Supreme Court ruling that counting votes without standard is
far worse than not counting the votes at all, it is understandable
that new ways of updating the system are being adopted all over the
Cue the advent of the electronic voting system.
On the surface, stepping the backbone of a democratic society up
to 21st Century standards seems a given. Touch-screen machines
promise accurate elections free of hanging chads that, as was
demonstrated in 2000, can prove fatal to an individual’s vote and
to the integrity of the entire election.
But upgrading the process to fit the newest technology is not
necessarily the best answer to the punch-card problem. In fact, it
seems that electronic voting machines bring more serious problems
than hanging chads ever could.
A research team at Johns Hopkins University published an
analysis of the electronic voting system, concluding that the risks
presented could threaten the entire democratic process. They found
weaknesses in the cryptography and software that would easily allow
a hacker – or an inside threat – to sabotage the votes without
Barry Rascovar, a strategic communications consultant,
criticized the study.
“We often forget that there is no foolproof method for holding
elections,” Rascover said. “Any method used could fall victim to
hanky-panky. It’s tough to pull off a scam, though, in an open
balloting environment. You might be able to hoodwink the computer,
but it’s far tougher to fool the thousands of Election Day humans
looking for mischief at the polls.”
What Rascover seems to overlook is the fact that the study
points out that possible interference would come from behind the
scenes, right underneath the election official’s noses. But
Rascover also felt it was not a fair analysis because the study was
done in a closed laboratory setting and not a “real-time’ election.
It seems Rascover would rather disregard the warning and take the
chances that an election would deteriorate into a fiasco worse than
the hanging chads in Florida.
At least in theory, hanging chads are re-countable. With the
electronic voting system, there is no paper trail to double check
the accuracy of the count. And the votes would not be counted by
state election officials, but rather the private voting machine
Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the top three
voting machine companies in the US – ES&S, Sequoia and Diebold
– all contribute heavily to a certain political party (take a wild
guess as to which one). Talk about a conflict of interest. It’s
eerie how partisan the computer glitches have proved so far. In
mid-term elections in 2002, voters in Texas who tried to vote for
the Democratic candidate where brought to a screen that only had
the Republican option.
And Florida thought punch ballots were confusing.
Robert Lawrence, professor of political science at CSU, said
that the technology upgrades would be okay if the integrity could
be guaranteed by a paper trial of some sort and also would “not
intimidate older citizens, and others who are not comfortable with
It is a valid point. Is the alienation of the technologically
timid a fair and valid side effect of upgrading the process, or is
it more like discrimination?
And there are groups – including the ACLU – who are against
attempting to add a paper trial to these machines, arguing that
adding printers to touch-screen voting systems will be costly and
will make it harder for blind people and other disabled voters to
use the machines correctly. They also sighted test runs of
printing-enabled machines in which the printers repeatedly
So then why do they still advocate the technology at all? Why go
to the huge expense of upgrading when the voting machines are not
as competent as the paper ballots? Is a gain in “accuracy” worth
the loss in the integrity of the voting process – which is
fundamental to the integrity of democracy itself?
Give me the hanging chads.
Shannon is a senior majoring in technical journalism. Her column
runs every Tuesday.