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Voting methods under close watch

Electronic voting gets mixed reviews

By Marsha Walton

Thirty-five states have some form of early voting to cut down on long lines on Election Day.
• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
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National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST)
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(CNN) -- If you think the country is divided and rancorous about the presidential contest, try polling a few experts about the accuracy and security of electronic voting.

"Clark County has used electronic voting since 1996, and it's been very successful," says Larry Lomax, registrar of voters in the Nevada county that includes Las Vegas. "We've never lost results, ever in Clark County."

But there are plenty of concerns to go around.

"With the paper-based system you can see the ballots being marked, you can see them going into a ballot box, if you have good laws you can go watch them count the ballots, and with electronic voting all of that stuff is hidden inside the machines," says David Dill, a computer scientist at Stanford University.

After the 2000 election debacle, many state and local election officials began to evaluate and upgrade their voting equipment to "not be like Florida" in 2004.

For some states, like Georgia, that meant the purchase of $54 million in electronic touchscreen machines throughout the state.

But others are holding off on such wholesale changes as e-voting technology matures.

In Los Angeles County, registrar of elections Conny McCormack oversees 3.8 million voters in 4,600 precincts. Ballots must be available in seven different languages. And even though she's satisfied with the limited number of electronic machines used for early voting, she also wants to make sure that whatever new system the county adopts next is accurate, secure and easy for voters to use.

"To move to new technology is going to cost somewhere around $100 to $120 million dollars. We don't want to make a decision like that lightly, we want to wait," she says.

'I love the machines'

And while some computer scientists have raised serious questions about possible fraud and hacking of the machines, many users have quickly accepted their ease of use.

Ken Meehan cast an early vote in Las Vegas recently.

"Technology, we hope, is for the best today. It's better than writing a name on a piece of paper. I'll have to go with the technology," he says.

"I love the machines. They're very convenient," says Joyce Hicks, also casting an early general election vote in Nevada.

About one third of voters in the United States will use some sort of electronic voting machine in the general election.

About one third of U.S. voters will use some form of electronic balloting this general election. Some will replace the problem-prone punch cards that made Florida a laughingstock in 2000.

Just a few weeks after that voting standoff in 2000, a group of computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and political scientists from the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology started examining the vast mosaic of voting laws, procedures, and equipment across the United States.

Since then members of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project have observed hundreds of local elections, and periodically released recommendations on improving voting procedures.

The group reports that 4 million to 6 million votes were lost in 2000. Of those:

  • 1.5 million to 2 million were lost because of faulty equipment and confusing ballots
  • 1.5 million to 3 million were lost because of registration mix-ups
  • Up to 1 million were lost because of problems with polling place operations
  • And there were unknown losses because of absentee ballot problems.
  • Numerous factors

    Ted Selker, co-director of the project from MIT, says process, procedure and training must be looked at, not just new technologies.

    "We have to do good ballot printing. We have to do good poll worker training. We have to have good polling place operations and be careful how we treat ballots as we go from the voting machine to the tallies," he says.

    And while the focus this year may be on electronic voting security concerns, Selker says voter mischief has occurred throughout history.

    Most voting machines in Nevada have a voter verified paper trail.

    "Ballots got stuffed, they got stolen, they got changed," he says, referring to earlier voting methods.

    Critics of electronic voting ask why systems that do nothing more than simple tabulation cannot be at least as secure as ATMs or slot machines.

    "If we look at security critical systems, say banking, electronic gambling, a great deal of care is put into making those machines secure, and still problems occur. I consider electing the leader of the free world to be a more critical question than who wins the lottery," said Stanford's David Dill, founder of

    Voting machine vendors believe they're behind the eight ball.

    "I think the electronic voting industry has gotten a bum rap because people are not comparing electronic voting technology with lever machines, with punch cards, with known inferior methods," says Michelle Shafer of Hart InterCivic. "They are comparing them with things that need utmost security, like missiles and weapons devices."

    "There are a finite number of people with the skill set to do anything nefarious with voting technology and those people rarely would have access and certainly would not have access that could not be detected on an electronic system," says Alfie Charles of Sequoia Voting Systems. Sequoia machines are being used in all precincts in Nevada.

    "By contrast, on a paper-based system if you have a punch card and a pen you can wreak havoc on that particular polling place's ballots," he adds.

    Defining requirements for machines

    At least five different voting technologies will be used November 2: electronic machines, lever machines, paper ballots, optical scanners, and punch cards. The trend is moving dramatically toward electronic methods.

    The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a part of the Commerce Department, is beginning the process of defining accuracy and security requirements for electronic voting equipment.

    There are state and federal standards now and the Federal Election Commission must approve voting machine vendors. But the process is fairly secretive.

    "I welcome NIST getting involved in this. I hope that quells some of the fears and concerns. Because they are professionals, they are not politicians, they are technologists," McCormack says.

    She says Florida's problems in 2000 were people problems and ballot design problems, not technology issues. And while she says much has been done across the country since then, voters' perceptions are still paramount.

    "Democracy is not a neat process, it is a complicated process. We are seeing a lot of that 'third world country' angst in our country, with a lot of loss of confidence and concerns from the 2000 election. And I would hate to think we will end up in that same scenario of possibly feeling like we are a third world country and no one trusts the government to count the votes right," McCormack says.

    So what may be the future of voting? Some states, including Oregon, have mail-in ballots. This election year a handful of states are trying to eliminate long rush hour lines on Election Day by allowing a week or more of early voting, at convenient locations such as malls and grocery stores.

    And while Internet voting may be a decade or more away, there could be other options.

    MIT's Selker says voters could use equipment they own, such as telephones, computers, even interactive television.

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