In 2004 I published this article in my local newspaper. At that time, not very many people were thinking about the problems that would come with electronic voting. Now the stories are popping up all over the place. Some people are saying that it has already resulted in election fraud, while others are predicting that it will happen in the future. Whatever the truth is, I think that the points I raised then — flaws in the software, security vulnerabilities, lack of independent auditing, fraud — are still important today.
In the futile campaign to save paperwork, many political jurisdictions have experimented with electronic voting systems. The attempt to use computers to create a paperless bureaucracy has proven to be futile because computers just make it easier to produce more printed documents than ever. However, voting is one place where it might work. Just think of all the paper boxes full of paper ballots that won’t have to be manufactured for every election.
Unfortunately there are security and accuracy concerns, which are especially important in democratic voting. That will probably mean that the electronic voting machine will be printing paper ballots to confirm voters’ electronic choices. Paper-based confirmation for a paper-free system. What will they think of next?
Wikipedia, the free internet encyclopedia, defines electronic voting as, “. . . any of several means of determining people’s collective intent electronically.” Okay, it means collecting votes through electronic devices such as kiosks, telephones or the internet. Its use in political elections started with lever-operated punch card systems in the 1960s. Those ancient systems are due to be replaced by more modern devices, and none too soon. Experiments have shown up to a 25% failure rate with punch card technology. But not everyone is comfortable with the new systems either.
The new voting machines have the big advantage of making it easier for more people to vote. People with disabilities, for example. But they are also open to malfunctions and fraud. Analyses have shown that these computer systems have many of the same glitches found in other computers. They have flaws in their software that can lead to inaccurate results. Worse, their security vulnerabilities leave them open to corruption.
One common concern is that the makers of the machines refuse to say how they work. They won’t open up the software for independent review. That means voters just have to put their faith in the skill and honesty of the vendors. How confident can they be that their vote will be properly counted while remaining secret?
There are solutions to the problems. Paper ballots can be verified by the voter and then stored in a locked box. The software can be opened up to ensure transparency and confidentiality in the voting procedure. The problems aren’t too big to handle.
Done right, electronic voting will be an improvement despite the potential pitfalls. And even with the backup paper ballots, it should end up saving paper.
Perhaps the most important thing in a democracy is the vote. That is where we get to make our wishes known, and where whatever power we have is exercised. It needs to be free and fair and immune to coercion and corruption. Electronic voting has the potential to help ensure that, but it also has the potential to destroy it. As always, unblinking vigilance is required.