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Inside Politics

Jury's still out on e-voting

Critics say it's too early in process to evaluate how machines did

By Daniel Sieberg

Scoring the success of e-voting: Touch-screen machines are used Tuesday in Severna Park, Maryland.
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America Votes 2004

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Can Chad finally go back to being an African nation?

This year, there was no mention of the hanging or pregnant variety of chad, no prolonged investigation into what went wrong, and lawyers for both sides got all wound up with nowhere to vent their litigation.

But the lack of a hotly contested outcome in 2004 may be a double-edged sword for electronic voting. (Special Report: America Votes 2004)

All eyes were on e-voting this time around as nearly a third of U.S. voters used some type of high-tech device.

The machines were designed to eliminate the problems associated with paper, but critics have been vocal in saying too many states jumped the gun to get them in place.

They worried about the lack of a voter-verified paper trail (only Nevada offers that to all voters in the state), weak software and the same digital disasters that come with computers. (Nevada improves odds with e-vote, Nevada election results)

So how did they perform?

The short, albeit unsatisfying answer is that it's still too early to know for certain.

But at least one member of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, which has been studying e-voting since 2000, said overall the machines seemed to perform beyond expectations.

"We are not receiving any reports of any huge systematic meltdowns regarding electronic voting, and certainly e-voting seems to have had the same sort of glitches we've seen in other paper-based voting systems," said R. Michael Alvarez, professor of political science at the California Institute of Technology.

"I'd give it a good passing grade, maybe a B, and I'd give the paper-based analogs about the same grade."

Alvarez added that many of the problems in 2004 appear to be related to human error, either on the part of voters or poll workers.

"The problems that arose are primarily process problems," he said. "The problems were procedural -- there were long lines, there were problems checking voters in, there were voter registration problems, there were many provisional ballots issued. ... Some of those problems hopefully will be fixed by technology."

Critics not satisfied

Bruce Schneier, security expert and chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security Inc., said the lack of any serious breakdowns does not mean problems aren't hidden inside the machines. He said he's concerned about the problems that aren't as obvious as a meltdown. (Voting methods under close watch)

"E-voting didn't pass any test," Schneier said. "What we have here is anecdotal evidence. A medical procedure might be safe or dangerous. And just because the patient didn't die does not mean that the procedure is safe."

Schneier said he hopes computer scientists and security analysts will continue to scrutinize the machines, even as the country moves beyond the election results.

While there were no major meltdowns reported, e-voting watchdogs such as the nonpartisan, nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation posted thousands of complaints on its Web site. It's impossible to verify all of them independently, but CNN did learn of some incidents where the technology appeared to malfunction.

In Florida, and a handful of other states, several voters said the touch-screen machines incorrectly recorded their choices. (Florida election results)

"I filled out my ballot and was shocked when I went to the final screen, and the ballot had voted for the opposite of what I had chosen on every candidate," one woman in Florida said.

The maker of those machines, Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., said the poll workers may not have calibrated them properly.

Elsewhere, in Louisiana, some voters were reportedly turned away since the machines wouldn't boot up. (Louisiana election results)

"In New Orleans, the machines just crashed," Schneier said. "They didn't work. And there was no backup planned; there were no paper ballots."

Even with hundreds or thousands of problems, it was a relatively small number considering that about 40 million people e-voted.

Manufacturers make victory speeches

One voting machine company, Diebold Election Systems Inc., said its devices did well under pressure.

"The machines performed extremely well," said Mark Radke, director of marketing for Diebold.

"Considering the size of the turnout, [which] I believe was a record turnout, we were extremely pleased with the reliability and accuracy of all the equipment."

Much of the e-voting effort has to do with instilling confidence in the voter. But that may take time, said one of the judges who inspected the Florida ballots in 2000.

"People talk about going back to a paper ballot, but you know in 2000 we used paper and that didn't do a lot to instill voter confidence," said Judge Charles Burton.

"I stood in line ... to vote, and as they were handing out the plastic cards that you insert, some lady said to me, 'Judge, you sure this isn't preprogrammed.' So people still have their doubts."

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires counties across the country to move toward eliminating punch cards and lever machines by 2006. And both sides of the debate agree there are e-voting merits, such as the ability of disabled people to use the machines without assistance, ease of voting choices and faster tabulation.

But with so much at stake, the decisions made today must be handled carefully like, well, a ballot.

The presidential election of 2004 is history.

Now it's a matter of securing e-voting's future.

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