Reversing Course on Electronic Voting
Some Former Backers of Technology
Seek Return to Paper Ballots,
Citing Glitches, Fraud Fears
By JEANNE CUMMINGS
May 12, 2006; Page A4
WASHINGTON -- Some advocates of a 2002 law mandating upgrades of the nation's voting machinery now worry the overhaul is making things worse.
With the 2006 midterm elections approaching, proponents of the Help America Vote Act are filing lawsuits to block some state and election officials' efforts to comply with the act.
The Help America Vote Act called for upgrading election equipment to guard against another contested outcome such as the 2000 presidential vote. Among the flaws in balloting almost six years ago were antiquated hand-operated voting machines and punch-card ballots that were difficult to read. To redress that, members of Congress pushed for modernization, which could include touch-screen voting machines, on which ballots are cast and recorded solely electronically. At the time, the electronic voting machines were seen as a reliable contrast to the older technology.
The lawsuits -- nine so far -- coincide with a stampede by state and county officials to spend $3 billion allocated by Congress to help pay for upgrades. To comply with the Help America Vote Act, a number of states and dozens of counties purchased touch-screen voting machines. The deadline for spending the money is tied to each state's 2006 primary dates.
Arizona was sued this week over such purchases and Colorado election officials are likely to be sued next week.
The Arizona lawsuit seeks to block the purchase of electronic-voting machines that critics say are vulnerable to fraud and prone to inaccurate tabulations. Another complaint is that it is more difficult to recount ballots cast on electronic-voting machines than paper ones.
The Help America Vote Act "has been turned on its head and it's causing more problems than solutions at this point," says Lowell Finley, a San Francisco lawyer and cofounder of Voter Action, a nonpartisan organization that is bringing some of the lawsuits.
Makers of the new electronic-voting machines and local election officials acknowledge glitches with the new equipment, but say most problems result from human error, not technology. "This technology has been used effectively for 10 to 15 years," says David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold Inc., a maker of electronic-voting equipment.
Jan Brewer, Arizona's secretary of state, calls the lawsuit's allegations "unsubstantiated" and said electronic machines are needed to allow disabled voters to cast their ballots privately and efficiently. "I have referred this matter to the attorney general and have asked him to seek a dismissal as soon as possible," she says.
Still, the 2004 presidential campaign and some early primary elections this year have provided evidence that the machines don't always work smoothly. And several states, after experiencing problems with touch-screen electronic systems, abandoned them to return to optically scanned paper ballots, already commonly used for absentee balloting. Typically, paper ballots require a voter to use a pencil to fill in a circle. The system is less costly to buy and maintain, and provides a paper record of ballots that can be reviewed in close or disputed elections.
Two governors have taken steps to curb the problems linked to electronic voting machines. New Mexico's Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson found his state in the national spotlight in 2004, when its election-night tallying of electronic voting was tardy and confusing. This year, he pushed through legislation mandating paper ballots -- which had been electronically scanned -- throughout the state. Maryland's Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich in February called for change after seeing a jump in the cost of maintaining and storing the sensitive electronic machines. Costs are anticipated to grow to $9.5 million next year from $858,000 in 2001.
Critics of the touch-screen voting method are following two lines of attack: the machines are unreliable and some local election officials have become too dependent on an industry that already has too much control over testing and operating the sophisticated equipment.
A North Carolina early voting test in the 2002 general election of six touch-screen machines made by Election Systems & Software Inc. uncovered a software problem that led to 436 uncounted votes. Local officials were further frustrated when a company representative acknowledged that they had seen the glitch before in a nearby county -- and hadn't shared the information. Ken Fields, spokesman for ES&S, of Omaha, Neb., said the problem stemmed from an "obscure technical issue" that made some machines function as if their memory was full. The glitch was solved by Election Day, he said.
In Indiana, an ES&S employee alerted local-election officials that another ES&S worker had installed unauthorized software on the machines before the election. That and other disputes led to a multimillion-dollar settlement. Mr. Fields said it was "a mistake" to alter the software. "We could have done a better job communicating with the county," he said.
In other cases, investigations have found that problems were caused by inexperienced election workers. In Illinois's recent primary, election officials in one precinct inserted a ballot improperly and paper jams caused breakdowns on other machines.
"Perfect shouldn't be the death of good," says Mr. Bear, who contends there's plenty of evidence showing electronic machines perform far better than Florida's much-lampooned punch ballots and antiquated lever ballots. "There have always been issues with elections. Technology didn't introduce those issues," he said.
Despite common charges that the machines lack adequate security, no cases have emerged proving that a hacker or an insider has or could electronically manipulate the vote.
Still, computer-science experts argue that the systems lack protection. And former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former President Jimmy Carter, who were co-chairmen of the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, warned in their 2005 final report that it could happen. "Software can be modified maliciously before being installed into individual voting machines. There is no reason to trust insiders in the election industry any more than in other industries," they found.
Write to Jeanne Cummings at firstname.lastname@example.org