With the spotlight on voting machines after the fiasco in Florida in 2000, terms like chads and electronic voting have become household words. As we close in on the November elections, however, the jury is still out on a new generation of voting technologies.
As the November election looms closer, it's pretty safe to say that this presidential election promises to be just as dramatic - if not more problematic - as the 2000 contest. In a post-9/11 nation, government security officials warn almost daily of possible Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on or near the election. Such ominous allegations have almost silenced what was proving to be one of the hottest stories of Election 2004 - the security and competence of the direct recording electronic voting systems (DREs).
For the past year tales of lost votes and easily hacked voting systems burned their way across the mainstream media, onto the Internet in blogs and chat rooms. Nonprofit groups sprung up practically overnight to "watchdog" the DREs and the vendors that made them. The issue got so heated that on July 13, 2004, citizens in 19 states took to the steps of their state capitals demanding a voter-verified paper trail as a backup in case the computers failed.
The matter of using secure and reliable DREs in elections isn't a small one. After the Florida 2000 election, DREs exploded onto the national landscape. According to Roy G. Saltman, only 10 percent of voters used them. Today, the Brennan Center for Justice predicts approximately 30 percent of registered voters in nearly half the states are expected to use a DRE to cast their ballot.
What are the problems of the DREs and what made them so popular? What can be done to safeguard the November 2004 election? There are various solutions but perhaps the participation of the average American voter may be the best line of defense.
PROBLEMS VS. POPULARITY
In the United States, voters usually cast their ballots on one of five systems: paper, lever machines, punch card machines, optical scanners, or DREs. Out of the five, there is no perfect election system - each is prone to votes lost or recorded incorrectly due to error or manipulation. In his work on examining lever machines during the late 1970s, Roy G. Saltman of National Bureau of Standards, found at least a third of the machines didn't record votes properly. The punch card debacle of the Florida 2000 presidential election added the word "chad" to the American vocabulary.
A litmus test for voting systems is the residual vote rate, also known as spoiled ballots, due to over-votes where more than one candidate for the same office was marked on the ballot or under-votes where no candidate was selected. Voting systems tend to lean toward one or the other. The Florida 2000 election showed how easily one can over-vote with punch cards - which is impossible with lever machines and DREs. However because the levers may stick thus not turn properly, under-voting may occur with lever machines.
When DREs work, they work extremely well. Their speed and accuracy in vote tabulation, the ability to program and quickly select the ballot in multiple languages, a lower residual rate than most other systems coupled with their computer audio capabilities where blind voters can hear their ballots - thus allowing them to cast a secret ballot - makes them attractive to election officials.
Historically with the residual vote rate in elections, according to a report written by the Caltech/MIT Voting Project's 2001 report "Residual Votes Attributable to Technology," DREs did poorly in 1988, 1992, and 1996. Oddly enough as punch cards struggled, 2000 "was the banner year for electronics" which "offers a glimmer of promise for this technology."
HAVA TO THE RESCUE
DRE popularity soared after the 2000 elections. Some people cite their push came from the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). The Florida 2000 election provided Congress with a wake up call to the voting problems in America: the residual vote rate of punch card voting systems, no clear method of having a recount, problems with voter registration lists, and how to handle military and oversees ballots. Congress passed HAVA to deal with each of these issues. It also provided funding - $3.9 million over five years. For example, one set of funds allowed states the money to clean up their registration rolls by having a state-centralized voter registration database. Another set provided states with dollars to replace their punch card and lever machines. This buyout came with a stiff deadline - the machines had to be replaced by the 2004 election. Congress would extend the deadline to 2006 if the state gave good cause.