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In Praise of E-Voting Machines

By Sonia Arrison
Jul 8, 2005 5:00 AM PT

Last week, the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform held hearings in Houston to discuss fixing the nation's voting system. New technologies help make most businesses more effective and efficient, so it only makes sense to upgrade America's ballot box as well.

In Praise of E-Voting Machines

E-voting machines, often referred to as direct recording electronic (DRE) machines, use touch screens and other high-tech devices to make voting simpler, easier and more accessible. But while the machines have many benefits, particularly when it comes to access for the blind and disabled, they are dogged by both realistic and unrealistic fears.

No Need for Paper

American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein asked the Carter Commission to consider e-voting security and whether a paper trail of votes should be required. He's not alone in this idea, but paper trails are perhaps less useful as a back-up device than a psychological aid for those who fear going totally digital. Those who are worried should understand that there are ways to allow for non-paper verification and recounts, such as through electronic and audio verification.

Indeed, in a paper-audio comparison study conducted by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, researchers found audio verification systems far more effective at helping voters catch ballot errors than a paper printout. But back-ups are not where the fears end. Some observers worry that the software code that runs the machines will be hacked or tampered with in order to steal an election.

As it stands now, in using paper to vote, all one has to do to tamper with an election is toss a bag of ballots in the ocean. It has happened many times, and election fraud is a serious problem. E-voting machines are a good solution as average poll workers are unlikely to know how to hack into or re-code the voting machines. As for the claim that the makers of the machines themselves might try to fix the election, there's a way to deal with that too.

Routine Inspections

Without compromising important intellectual property protections, state and national election officials should require DRE vendors to routinely allow their proprietary software code to be examined for flaws and potential weaknesses. A number of DRE vendors have already submitted their code for analysis, and should continue to do so on a regular basis. In addition, "parallel monitoring," or randomized election day testing of e-voting machines, should be made by state election officials to maintain system reliability and bolster voter confidence. On top of these safety checks is also a market test.

With a competitive DRE vendor industry, election officials can open a bidding process to take into account voter concerns for future purchases. Election officials and activists can track the outcomes of different vendor machines over time, compare their performance, and select those that best fit their county's needs.

These checks and balances won't satisfy the Luddites or conspiracy theorists, but most Americans are embracing the technology. A 2004 Winston Group survey found that seven out of 10 voters were not concerned with the security of e-voting equipment, and that an overwhelming majority of voters who have used e-voting systems agreed that DRE devices are helpful in reducing electoral maladies, such as accidental over-voting or under-voting.

Fears that the machines will cause problems help to ensure proper precautions, but these fears can be overblown. Unlike paper ballots, in the history of DREs, no one has found any evidence of the machines being used for fraudulent purposes.

Most businesses and government departments have upgraded their systems using new technology, so it only makes sense to update America's voting process as well. That will make for increased efficiency, accuracy and accessibility. In the long run, the entire country will benefit.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute and co-author of Upgrading America's Ballot Box: The Rise of E-voting.

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