Sunday, November 05, 2006

System in Crisis: Will Electronic Voting Be an Election Day Nightmare?

Yesterday I watched HBO's "Hacking Democracy," a film documentary on the problems of electronic voting in the United States.

I'm normally wary of these types of programs, considering the bias of the liberal media. Yet the film is so well done -- and the documentary's main protagonists,
especially Seattle grandmother and writer Bev Harris, are so compelling -- that I'm convinced that the problems of e-voting raise fundamental questions about the integrity of the American democracy. This should not be a liberal or conservative issue. No party or candidate can govern with full effectiveness if the very legitimacy of their administration is threatened by claims of voting irregularities.

Friday's Los Angeles Times had
an article on the implications of e-voting for this year's elections:

After the 2000 presidential election in Florida exposed the dangers of relying on punch-card ballots and other vintage voting systems, the federal government spent more than $3 billion to help state and local authorities overhaul the way Americans record their votes. When the polls open for Tuesday's midterm election, 90% will be equipped with new high-tech systems.

But instead of bringing the accuracy, efficiency and reliability of the corner ATM, the wholesale makeover of the nation's voting system has brought a new set of concerns: the possibilities of software bugs, freeze-ups, vulnerability to hackers and new forms of human error that could bring their own chaos and controversy.

In Maryland, for instance, doubts about the state's touch-screen system are so serious that Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has urged voters to cast absentee ballots instead of going to neighborhood precincts. And in Pennsylvania, one-third of voters believe it would be easy to rig touch-screen machines to change election results, a recent university-sponsored poll found.

Both states are battlegrounds in the struggle for control of the Senate.

The six states that are considered most likely to determine which party controls the Senate all have adopted touch-screen voting systems, but they differ widely in the safeguards they require. According to the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project, four of the states don't insist on what experts consider the most fundamental protection — a paper trail.

Though Missouri and Ohio mandate a paper backup of each vote, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia do not. New Jersey's decision to require paper backups will not be fully implemented until 2008.Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the reliability of Ohio's paper backup. An audit of a primary election this year in the Cleveland area found that the machine-counted vote total didn't agree with the backup paper ballots. Because of printer jams and other problems, the paper count was significantly lower."

The election system, in its entirety, exhibits shortcomings with extremely serious consequences, especially in the event of a close election," analysts from the Election Science Institute said in their report to Ohio officials.

Though the old voting systems were far from uniform — or free from errors or corruption — the stakes in next week's elections to decide who controls the House and Senate, as well as the statehouses and legislatures, are too high to shrug off the possibility of serious problems.
Thursday's Wall Street Journal also addressed the issue in their piece, "Can Electronic Voting Be Trusted?" Also, Lou Dobbs has been running a CNN series on "Democracy at Risk," which overlaps closely with the main points of HBO's documentary.

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