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The big election beta test

Ready or not, here comes electronic voting.

Robert Lemos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Robert Lemos
covers viruses, worms and other security threats.
Robert Lemos
5 min read
Votes cast Tuesday will not only determine the next president of the United States, they could also go a long way toward determining the future of ballot machines in America.

Nearly 30 percent of registered voters are expected to use computerized ballot systems, according to Election Data Services--making this election the biggest test yet for the controversial technology in the United States.

Backers tout the systems as necessary upgrades to the error-prone setups that muddied results in Florida during the 2000 election, but some critics are equally quick to trash them as no more secure or reliable.

"This election will be a significant test of the public's trust in the reliability and security of e-voting," said Dan Seligson, editor of Electionline.org, Web site for the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project. "We are very early in the development of electronic voting machines, and what happens in the election will dictate the future development of e-voting."

Consulting firm Election Data Services calculates that 45 million Americans out of a voting population of 155 million will cast a ballot by machine. Among states using the systems, the most closely watched contests will be in Nevada and Maryland, which have fallen on opposite sides of a fierce debate in e-voting circles.

The debate centers on whether states should give e-voters a backup paper ballot as a security measure. Nevada has added paper trail audit features to its e-voting system, and Maryland has decided not to. Election day could offer the first chance to prove one side right or wrong.

"I firmly believe that paper continues to be the bane of elections, and it will continue to cause problems at the polls," said Linda Lamone, administrator of elections for Maryland.

In response to security concerns, Nevada installed printers with each voting machine. The printers enable voters to check their vote before casting a ballot, and the paper acts as a hard copy of the vote, in case of a recount.

By contrast, Maryland successfully fought off a legal challenge that would have required the state to add the largely untested printing technology to its voting machines.

Ted Selker, an associate professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the MIT-CalTech Voting Project, said he believes that the security measures advocated by pro-paper trail activists may cause more problems, not less.

To illustrate his point, he cited a recent event in Nevada. When the ballot printer for an electronic voting machine jammed during the state's early elections, a polling-place official took a pair of scissors and tried to free the paper roll, messily cutting through several paper ballots that had already been cast.

"It is unclear that any technology can prevent someone from screwing up," Selker said, who witnessed the mishap. He added that nearly one in 20 printers in Nevada's early ballot had jammed.

If the printing problem spreads to other polling places in Nevada, the situation could act as a cautionary tale for states that are still considering whether to adopt paper audits.

Stronger security or smooth elections?
Legal experts said that the specter of e-voting glitches is only one in a long list of potential ballot problems, and the issue is not the most significant. Error-prone voter registration lists, poorly trained poll workers and complex new election measures are all more likely to play a role in postelection lawsuits involving close results, they said.

However, the use of modern e-voting technology, which has come amid a federal push to update state election systems and rules, may well end up contributing to these issues.

For example, Kentucky has run its voting on a fairly simple electronic device, the Electronic 1242, which has had little security testing other

than what is required for federal certification--in other words, not much. However, the state has had few problems with the machines since it adopted them in the mid-1980s, said Roger Baird, president of Harp Enterprises, the company that services the systems.

"It is a great piece of equipment, but one which we will have to replace because of HAVA," Baird said, referring to the Help America Vote Act of 2002. "Most of the stuff out there is now based on PCs and fails a lot more often."

HAVA offers funds to states to help them update their voting systems and election rules. Under the standards set by the law, funded states must use election machines that notify the voter of errors, allow disabled voters to cast ballots without assistance and create a permanent paper record.

The rules, which have to be adopted by 2006, also require states to set up provisional voting for citizens who do not appear on voter rolls, check the identification of first-time voters and create a statewide voter registration database.

HAVA is overseen by the Election Assistance Commission, which is charged with helping states make changes. The Bush administration delayed the nomination of the leaders of the EAC by nine months, leaving the agency with little time to get ready for the 2004 election and with hardly any funding for the past year.

"We were hobbled by that for the first few months," said Paul DeGregorio, one of four commissioners who administer the EAC.

That delay was passed on down to the states, which have had to quickly adopt the standards to change the election process. Officials now have the task of helping poll workers learn a long list of new procedures.

"We are going to turn this all over to about 1.5 million people whose average age is 72," DeGregorio stressed. "These are patriotic Americans that will be putting in long hours on election day" but don't necessarily have a deep understanding of technology.

In the end, election experts such as DeGregorio, who administered elections in Missouri in the late 1980s and early 1990s, believe that the United States will muddle through Nov. 2, with a lot of mistakes from which to draw lessons.

"We will learn a lot from this election," DeGregorio said. "There will be a lot of news about problems on the wire, and I'm sure that there will be a lot of postmortems."