Debugging The E-vote

Matthew Zimmerman

August 17, 2005

Matthew Zimmerman is a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

More than 1,700 days ago, the most significant breakdown of election equipment and procedures in U.S. history occurred. Nearly a year ago, numerous documented incidents of malfunctioning voting machines again cast doubt on close races across the country. Now, Congress is once again set to return from its summer recess solidly unsure of what it will do on the election reform front.  The Help America Vote Act, passed on the wings of post-2000 voter indignation, has resulted in what many critics expected of the wide-reaching legislation: some solid gains, plenty of good intentions, and too many questions left dangerously unanswered.  One of those outstanding questions is what, if anything, to do about paperless electronic voting machines.

Ask nearly any independent computer security expert familiar with today’s e-voting technology and you’ll likely be met with a familiar refrain: The current approach—closed technology with minimal oversight and insufficient audit capabilities—is a bad idea.  Open government advocates aren’t terribly thrilled with the idea, either. Absent transparency, voter-verifiability and the ability to conduct legitimate recounts, such election systems will continue to raise doubts and foster suspicion, whatever the benefits. Eager to quickly undo the damage inflicted by the hanging chad, Congress could not have had this in mind.

The solution might just emerge from New Jersey.  Rush Holt, a Democratic representative from the state that just implemented its own voter-verified paper ballot requirement last month, has authored the most well-thought-out proposal to emerge on the subject and is currently making a strong push for support.  This week, in the second such event in a month, constituents are meeting with dozens of undecided members of Congress in their home districts in the hopes of swaying them to support this promising bill. The bill's inability to thus far muster overwhelming support owes more to the unnecessarily polarized politics of election reform than to any legislative shortcoming.

Co-sponsored by more than 140 (mostly Democratic) members of the House, Holt’s Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act  would require that voting machines in federal elections produce paper records available for voters to inspect and confirm at the time the vote is cast.  Critically, the act would (among other things) also require mandatory manual recounts, prohibit the use of wireless networking technologies, require a verified chain-of-custody record of machine software, demand more robust federal accreditation and provide much-needed funding.

How real is the threat?  Recall just a few recent examples of known problems with paperless e-voting equipment and associated procedures. In Carteret County, N.C., a memory limitation resulted in 4,438 votes being permanently and irretrievably lost during the November 2004 election, leading to a race being rerun.  Machine malfunctions and high undervote rates in three Pennsylvania counties in November 2004 resulted in the decertification of the Unilect Patriot e-voting system. The Unilect machines malfunctioned during a re-examination, leading the secretary of the commonwealth to note that “these malfunctions help explain why there were more than 10,000 instances where a vote was not counted.”  In Miami-Dade County, Florida, nearly 35 percent of the precincts showed discrepancies during the November 2004 election, including one precinct that reported 844 voters signing in and casting more than 910 votes.  And in a March 2005 special election, Miami-Dade County experienced significant problems with its e-voting machines, potentially losing hundreds of ballots due to a computer error. These are only the problems that we know about.  Far from representing hypothetical concerns, e-voting technology continues to demonstrate tangible growing pains as it evolves from a nascent idea to a viable, reliable election-day solution.

A variety of less-refined competing bills have emerged in recent months from both sides of the aisle, each (so far) with less support. Rep. Jim Gibbon, R-Nev., has proposed his own bill that requires a voter-verified paper record but does not require mandatory manual audits or provide supplemental funding.  Rep. Steve King’s, R-Iowa, version closely mirrors Rep. Gibbons’ bill, with the additional shortcoming that in the event of a conflict between the electronic and paper records, the paper record is not explicitly given priority.  Other Democratic efforts have emerged as portions of ambitious omnibus election reform bills and thus far have not demanded rigorous paper record or mandatory audit language.  In short, nothing on the horizon tackles the e-voting reform question better than Holt’s well-crafted bill.

But can it pass?  As of this writing, HR 550 enjoys co-sponsorship from 144 members of the House—primarily Democratic, but increasingly bipartisan as Republicans begin to realize that this is not a Trojan horse from the left.  At the end of the day, reformers' ability to tone down the rhetoric and conspiracy theories and instead focus on attractive common values like transparency and verifiability will largely determine whether Republicans will climb on board in large numbers as they should.  With jurisdictions around the country buying into short-sighted sales pitches from e-voting vendors—and with mid-term elections barely a year away—the clock is ticking.