Don’t Strangle E-Voting With Paper

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s State of the State address this week reminded California voters that in ten months they’ll be casting ballots again, many using electronic voting devices. While popular, e-voting is at risk of being stymied by nervous Nellies and the anti-property lobby.

One frequently cited concern with e-voting machines, otherwise known as direct recording electronic (DRE) devices, is reliability. The question of stability and backups becomes an issue every time an industry is on the verge of switching from paper to electronics.

Improving the System

Computers are known to crash and data sometimes gets lost, but more often than not, computers function properly and data is backed up electronically. Data can also be retrieved, even after it has been purposely deleted, much to the chagrin of some criminals. Concerns about making computers reliable are valid, but deploying that fear to block the use of e-voting machines, as some activists have attempted to do, is wrong. An MIT study by political scientist Charles Stewart showcased the proper way to frame the issue.

The study, which examined the use of e-voting machines in Georgia, asked whether the machines performed better than the collection of older voting technologies the state used before. The answer was yes, because the machines decreased the number of “lost” votes and increased the power of democracy. By looking to see whether e-voting machines were better than old technology, not whether they were perfect, Professor Stewart’s research helps those truly wishing to improve the nation’s electoral system — but not everyone sees it that way.

In California and other states, the march to make e-voting machines perfect using legislative dictates is in vogue. For instance, even after California passed a law to force all e-voting machines to have a voter-verified paper audit trail, state Senator Debra Bowen introduced yet more legislation for paper. At this rate, one might expect to find a paper-covered computer in the voting booth.

Outdated Methods

Bowen’s legislation increased the state’s commitment to slow, old and inefficient paper voting methods by specifying that “manual recounts of votes” requires that “the paper record copies or the voter verified paper audit trail of the electronically recorded vote are counted manually.” In a press release on this issue, she echoed worn out anti-property rhetoric that will ring strange to freedom-loving Californians considering her run for Secretary of State.

Bowen argues that California shouldn’t rely on proprietary software to count ballots. “If we want to ensure we have voting systems that are reliable and secure — and that voters have confidence in — we need to be moving toward an open source software structure,” she says. This argument is a red herring, probably designed to distance her from current Secretary of State Bruce McPherson.

Matters of Trust

Just because open-source software is out in the open doesn’t mean it is secure, and just because proprietary software doesn’t openly spill its code doesn’t mean it is flawed. Both types of software should compete, and government tests of proprietary code before use make a lot of sense. The assertion that voters don’t trust e-voting machines is also wrong.

According to a 2004 Winston Group survey, voters using e-voting machines are just as likely to trust their voting technology as voters using lever machines and optical scanners. The survey further revealed that seven out of ten 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- or under-voting. In short, e-voting is pretty popular, but sure to touch off discussion as the next election day draws near.

The question is not whether e-voting systems are perfect but whether they are better than old methods that all too often ended with bags of ballots floating in rivers and oceans. For democracy to prosper, voters should heed the voices of reason and reject the nervous Nellies, Luddites and anti-property activists.

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.”


  • Whatever your political orientation, if you believe in democracy, ensuring the integrity of elections is critical. If even Department of Defense computers have been hacked, then any system of electronic voting must undergo the most rigorous public scrutiny. How on earth could this be disparaged as the concern of "nervous Nellies"?

  • I thought the purpose of the paper trail was to verify the votes. Why would you want a recount that didn’t check the printouts? They did that in Florida, and it didn’t prove anything, so they had to chuck the system.

  • What on earth is the "anti-property lobby"? Would that be those of us who care about the integrity of the electoral process, by chance? Always thought this was a news pub, not a right-wing screed… Live and learn, I suppose.

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