WASHINGTON - Voting security advocates in the U.S. are bracing for a repeat of problems in the upcoming general election that could rival Florida during the 2000 presidential race.
Advocates aren't worried about hanging chads on paper ballots, which caused thousands of votes to go uncounted in the 2000 election. Instead, a number of voting security groups are focused on the electronic voting machines that have replaced paper ballots in many states. Counties in 27 states, including presidential swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as the District of Columbia, will use direct electronic recording machines (DREs), accounting for about 30 percent of U.S. voters on Nov. 2.
Interviews with local elections officials across the U.S. who will be overseeing the use of electronic voting equipment on Election Day suggest that most dismiss the controversy over electronic voting technology and are hopeful about the promise of the new machines to allow elections to run more smoothly. But a flood of new voters could combine with a potpourri of new voting technology and the U.S.'s scattershot system for running and managing elections to create confusion.
Voting security advocates have raised dozens of concerns about e-voting machines. Among the complaints about DREs: Some of the back-end vote-counting tabulators can be easily hacked; some smart cards that provide access to the machines can be faked; and votes can be lost when machines crash, as computers sometimes do.
In short, groups like BlackBoxVoting.org and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) complain that DREs don't give voters any indication of what's going on inside the machine. Most DRE vendors keep the inner workings of their machines proprietary, and critics complain that the DREs are in essence a "black box."
The EFF has focused on what it calls the lack of an audit capability in DREs. Most machines cannot print a so-called voter-verified paper trail, so when a politician demands a recount, most DREs will simply spit out the same set of disputed numbers again and again.
"At the end of the day, you really have to trust that the design of the system was such that it's doing what the vendors are telling you it's doing," said Matt Zimmerman, an EFF attorney focused on e-voting. "It doesn't prove anything to me for you … to say, 'We can recount it.' What they really mean is, 'We're going to press the print button again on these machines, and by magic, we're going to have the same outcome."
BlackBoxVoting.org and VerifiedVoting.org have lined up thousands of volunteers to check for problems with DREs on Election Day. At least one lawsuit still pending, filed by U.S. Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, seeks to stop his state from using DREs without adding a paper trail.
Supporters of DREs defend them as a much better alternative to the paper ballots that caused so much confusion in Florida in 2000. E-voting machines offer no less transparency than old paper balloting systems, argued Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a trade association of technology vendors.
And the systems have been a blessing for harried poll workers.
"We're definitely happier with DRE (systems). We're done counting votes at 10 p.m. It used to be 2, 3 or 4 a.m. with paper ballots," said Dorene Mandity, director of elections for Beaver County, Pennsylvania.