The Machine Age

Electronic voting could put an end to paper ballots. Is that a good thing?

Can everyone in Texas vote electronically?

No. When Texans go to the polls for the March 9 primary, only 12 of 254 counties will be using what are known as direct recording electronic voting machines (DREs). But that number is expected to increase soon. After the Florida fiasco in 2000—remember hanging chads?—Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, committing $3.9 billion to help states eliminate punch-card ballots. Many Texas counties will use that money to switch to DREs because they're paperless (votes are recorded on a computer), which means no laborious and potentially inaccurate hand counting.

There are half a dozen manufacturers of DREs. Who decides which electronic machines voters can use?

Election officials in each county. However, says Texas Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor, a voting system has to be certified before it's used, first at the federal level and then at the state level. For the latter to happen, a six-member team of examiners appointed by Connor and Attorney General Greg Abbott must evaluate each DRE system, making sure that it operates accurately and is considered safe from unauthorized manipulation. Four companies' systems have been certified thus far in Texas. The eSlate, made by Hart InterCivic, of Austin, is the most widely used (3.4 million registered voters in four counties).

Wait a minute—"unauthorized manipulation"? What's that all about?

Computer experts say paperless voting can have major security flaws. Last year, for instance, the source code—a computer program's blueprint—for the AccuVote, a DRE made by Ohio-based Diebold Electronics, was found posted on the Internet. With that code, programmers say, someone could hack into an AccuVote machine and change an election result. There's also the issue of how to ensure the accuracy of a recount without a hard copy of each ballot. "The concern with any paperless system is that voters don't have confidence that their vote will count," says Dan Wallach, an assistant professor of computer science at Rice University.

How are DRE manufacturers responding to these concerns?

Rigorous security measures have been installed in their systems. With an eye to accuracy and tamperproof security, says Hart InterCivic vice president of marketing Bill Stotesbery, the eSlate records votes in three independent storage areas; if at any time during the election those data sets don't match, the system alerts election officials. In addition, the eSlate machines at each precinct are never connected to a network, which makes it impossible for a hacker outside the polling place to break into the system. In addition, the counties themselves put their DREs through meticulous testing before each election to ensure that none of the machines have been tampered with.

Do these measures satisfy computer experts?

No. Most insist that no matter how many safeguards are put into the designs of DREs, there will always be vulnerabilities that hackers will find a way to exploit. They do, however, propose a simple solution—a voter-verifiable audit trail. It would work like this: Once a voter has finished making his selections on a DRE, a printer attached to the machine will produce a paper receipt reflecting his selections. If the voter approves, the paper will go into a sealed ballot box that can be used in case of a manual recount. If the voter sees an error, he can reject the receipt (which will be stamped "void," or some such) and vote again before his choice has been officially recorded.

Why aren't we using voter-verifiable audit trails now?

For the same reason nearly 50 percent of Americans don't vote: It's not required. Already, however, both California and Nevada have made paper receipts mandatory, and last fall, Democratic representative Rush Holt, of New Jersey, introduced a bill that would require audit trails on a national level. In response, all DRE manufacturers, including Hart InterCivic, are developing receipt-printing prototypes. "The good news is that the concern over security has raised valid issues," says Stotesbery. "In the long run, this will only create a better system."

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