The Computer Ate My Vote: The Uncertainties of Electronic Voting

November 1st, 2006

By Greg Ryan

Before 2000, voting was seen by many an upstanding American as a perfectly wholesome and legitimate activity. The country had not seen widespread allegations of voter fraud since Republicans accused Kennedy and the Democrats of stuffing the ballot box 40 years earlier. The candidates may be crooked, voters thought, but the machines they voted on could certainly be trusted.

“You got your ballot, you voted, you got your little ‘I voted’ sticker and went on your way. No one ever cared what happened when they went to count your votes,” said John Gideon, executive director of VotersUnite!, a fair elections activist group.

It was in that fateful year, that Katherine Harris, butterfly ballots and something known as the “chad” came into our lives, and elections in this country have never been the same.

Six years have passed since the Florida fiasco, and while the president we may or may not have elected remains the same, the way in which we vote, in large part, does not. Forty percent of voters are expected to use electronic voting machines this November, over three times the number that voted electronically in 2000.

The Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, has been the main catalyst for the transition to electronic machines. Passed by Congress in 2002, HAVA provided large grants to states that upgraded their voting machines, which in most cases meant a switch to electronic technology. The law was seen by many at the time as a viable solution to the country’s election woes. Confusing paper ballots and “hanging” chads would become relics; electronic technology would alleviate voters’ concerns and ensure their votes were accurately counted.

Yet in the years since HAVA was enacted, errors and controversy have continued to plague this country’s elections. In one Kansas county in 2003, for example, electronic voting machines identified one candidate the winner over another in a local commissioner race, only for election officials to find out later that the machines had somehow switched the candidates’ vote totals. A year later, in the 2004 presidential election, an electronic machine in one Ohio precinct recorded over 4,000 votes for George W. Bush and 260 for John Kerry, despite the fact that only 638 people in the precinct voted that day. In June, glitches in electronic voting machines caused the wrong candidate to be declared the winner in all nine of Pottawattamie County, Iowa’s local races. It was only after election officials counted the votes by hand that the error was discovered, and the true winners were established.

Electronic voting machines have caused hundreds of errors since 2002. The devices have switched votes, negated ballots and in some cases simply not worked at all, causing massive delays and long lines at polling stations. In many cases, such as those described above, the problems were rectified before the vote tallies were finalized. In others, they were not. In November 2004, a handful of voters in Ohio swore under oath that they had seen their Kerry vote either fade away or switch to Bush on the touch-screen they used to cast their ballot. Six months later, in Miami-Dade County, Fla., officials were still trying to figure out why 260 of the county’s polling places listed a discrepancy between the number of votes and the number of voters. In both of these cases, as in others, electronic voting machines had disenfranchised an unknown number of people.

Gideon says the vendors of the machines are to blame for the errors.

“They used real elections to beta-test their equipment, and they’ve been taking care of fixing problems when they learn about problems,” said Gideon. “They’ve completely disregarded the fact that those are our votes; that’s our means of picking who we want to represent us in our government. They’ve disregarded all of that, because there’s billions of dollars to be made out there by these companies.”

The companies that supply electronic voting machines have certainly profited from HAVA and the sudden demand for new elections technology. HAVA mandated that states taking federal money to improve their election systems complete their upgrade by Jan. 1, 2004, or, if “good cause” for delay was found, Jan. 1, 2006. The tight deadline left states scrambling to install electronic voting machines as quickly as possible, with quality and security succumbing to convenience and availability.

“The carrot was the money to get the states to do it, but the stick should have been the standards. Implement a federally accredited [testing system], and then you give them the money. But it didn’t happen that way,” said Lillie Coney, coordinator of the National Committee of Voting Integrity.

Diebold, one of the biggest sellers of electronic voting machines, may have even purchased favor in Washington in order to establish the early deadlines. The company hired David DiStefano, a former chief of staff of HAVA’s sponsor, Bob Ney, to serve as their lobbyist when Ney was writing the bill. According to lobbying disclosure forms filed with the Senate Office of Public Records, Diebold paid DiStefano at least $175,000 between 2003 and 2005. DiStefano subsequently donated tens of thousands of dollars to Ney’s campaigns. In September, Ney pled guilty to accepting gifts from lobbying mogul Jack Abramoff. Before that, though, he helped to kill several bills in Congress that would have added a number of remedial provisions to HAVA, such as requiring every machine to produce a paper record.

Diebold has found itself mired in other controversies since HAVA was enacted. The CEO of the company, Wally Odell, infamously told Ohio Republicans in 2003 that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President” in the next year’s presidential election. A year later, Ohio was plagued by accusations of voter fraud and disenfranchisement, triggering flashbacks to Florida in 2000.

A Princeton University study released in September further discredited the embattled voting technology. The study showed that it took only a minute for a virus to be uploaded onto a common Diebold voting machine, compromising the vote totals in such a way that the switch could never be detected. Earlier studies by Johns Hopkins University and the Government Accountability Office have produced similarly frightening results.

Diebold responded to the Princeton report by deriding the study as “unrealistic and inaccurate” and claiming the security programs on the machines studied were “two generations old.” Princeton responded that Diebold had promised that these earlier machines were secure, and since the researchers had disproved that notion, any current claims of security were questionable.
Walter Mebane, an expert in election forensics at Cornell University, says the vendors’ concern for image and profit can lead them to become overly defensive.

“[The vendors] are not really cooperative and not really receptive,” Mebane said. “They can’t be, in a sense, because their business model depends on the technology, and they don’t like questions being raised for which they do not have good answers.”
Despite the suspicions of corruption and high degree of malfunction surrounding electronic voting machines, the problem may have a relatively simple solution. A paper receipt, verified by the voter as to its accuracy, would eliminate disenfranchisement caused by machine error, and a required manual audit of random precincts would serve as a check against possible machine corruption. Twenty -seven states currently require a voter-verified paper trail, and 13 require manual audits. Voter advocacy groups such as the National Committee for Voting Integrity and Gideon’s VotersUnite! are working to increase those numbers.

Some state officials are reluctant to adopt such measures because they fear it will be seen as an admission of irresponsibility.

“It has more to do with the political consequences of spending tens of millions of dollars of state and federal resources on technology than anything else,” said Coney. “Saying, ‘If this breaks, what are we going to do?’ is saying [the states] wasted the resources and money, so they’re very resistant to that.”

Gideon, for one, believes that voting machine problems will be worse in the upcoming election than they were in 2000 and 2004, citing the dozens of errors that have already occurred in the 2006 primaries. Although he believes electronic voting could be useful once the proper security safeguards are in place, for now he says that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

“There’s no proof that it’s working, and actually, I think there’s more proof that it’s not working,” said Gideon. “I think the country would be better served if we weren’t doing it and went to non-computerized means of doing elections.

“We’re still, today, finding security flaws that were discovered two years ago that the companies said they were going to fix, and they’ve never done anything to fix any of them,” he continued. “They’re still there, and they’ll be there until somebody finally puts their foot down and demands something be done about it.”


Greg Ryan is a junior journalism and psychology major who, after finding mysterious errors in his papers, now uses a typwriter. Email him at gryan1@ithaca.edu.

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