Internet no panacea for voting problems

With Florida still unable to claim a winner in the presidential election, the attention on voting methods and technologies is drawing renewed awareness to the imperfect business of tallying votes.

4 min read
With Florida still unable to claim a winner in the presidential election, the attention on voting methods and technologies is drawing renewed awareness to the imperfect business of tallying votes.

Under the spotlight Want election news? Get it here is whether counting votes by hand is more accurate than counting them by machines and whether some form of electronic voting ought to be widely adopted to reduce the risk of miscounts in close contests.

"No election system is perfect," said Joe Mohen, chief executive of Election.com, an Internet voting company based in Garden City, N.Y. "However, going forward, it will be significantly better than it is today, given the technology and tools we have available."

Election watchers, however, note that overhauling the voting system is no easy task. Each state is responsible for setting voting regulations, with individual counties typically granted broad discretion to establish procedures, including purchasing voting equipment. Winning agreement on a county-by-county basis for a potentially costly replacement of voting machines is unlikely anytime soon.

Punch cards, which are relatively cheap to set up and run, are used to tally votes in roughly 14 of Florida's counties as well as in many others across the country.

While there are other election methods already in use, each system comes with its own particular drawbacks.

A contraption dubbed the Direct Recording Electronic Systems operates much like an ATM and is used in counties in California, New Jersey and other states. The voter chooses candidates by pressing on a screen, and a light blinks indicating the choice selected.

The problem with this electronic system, experts say, is there is no paper trail to audit if the result is disputed. In other words, in a razor-thin election such as this year's race for the presidency, there would be no way to verify computer counts, said Lorrie Cranor, a researcher at AT&T Labs.

Another option is to record votes using an optical scan, which works much like a standardized test in which the voter fills out an oval bubble with a black or blue ink pen. Immediately after voting, the card is scanned to determine if it was done correctly--for example, if the bubbles were filled in completely.

Put to the test
On the horizon is online voting, which was used in an absentee ballot pilot in the current disputed presidential election. But the transition from punch cards to one-click voting has taken longer than expected. Chief among the problems with online voting are security and a digital divide, meaning those who can't afford computers wouldn't be able to vote through an online system.

"I can imagine a virus that might change your vote or send your ballot somewhere else," said Cranor, who focuses on electronic voting methods in her research.

Earlier this year, Election.com conducted the first legally binding election over the Internet for the Arizona Democratic primaries.

Though the event drew thousands more Democratic voters to the polls, Election.com's Mohen said he would do some things differently in the future.

In the Arizona election about 4 percent of the voters encountered problems because their browsers were too old and could not support security features. Mohen said he would make it clear far in advance which equipment was needed to vote online. He also said he would make it so that disabled people would be able to vote with a click of the mouse.

Mohen predicts that online voting will appear in some counties and states as early as next year for special elections.

In Florida, meanwhile, the saga continues. A circuit judge on Friday upheld Secretary of State Katherine Harris' decision to stop accepting recounted votes by hand as of Tuesday evening. Gore had asked for the recounts after inconsistencies and discrepancies were reported.

Florida's election laws allow for a recount of votes by hand. But now, the only votes that will be received are absentee ballots from overseas military personnel. Gore is expected to appeal the ruling.

Paper punching
Machines that use punch cards in popular elections, such as the current presidential race, have been around since about the 1950s. A vendor of one of the machines says they are, in an ideal situation, 99.9 percent accurate. But sometimes the voter doesn't punch through the card all the way, leaving a scrap of paper, or "chad," dangling.

The chad could cause the machine to slow down and record inaccurate figures, said Robert Swartz, president of Cardamation, a Pheonixville, Penn., company that has been making punch card systems for about 25 years.

"In extremely close elections, we regularly read cards through twice and then again by hand," Swartz said Friday. "The only ways to resolve the problem of flapping chads is to look at the cards."

Swartz then compares the results to get an accurate count.

But some experts point out that every conceivable process of tabulating votes--including hand counting--is prone to mistakes, meaning that a "true" count is beyond reach.

"When people pontificate about recounting an election so that we can determine the 'true and accurate' vote, I laugh," Thomas Workman wrote for TechnoLawyer.com. Workman has studied statistical error rates in document processing systems.

If machines can't be counted on to get the real answer in Florida, he argued recently, people may be even less reliable.

"Humans are not well suited to repetitive tasks," Workman wrote, "and counting ballots is one of the most repetitive of tasks."