Et Tu, E-Voting?

Image: Ted S. Warren/AP

This November, in what may be one of the closest U.S. presidential elections ever, more than a quarter of the ballots will be cast using equipment that directly records votes only on electronic media, with no tangible form of backup. That's nearly triple the number of electronic votes cast in 2000. Twenty-five years in the making, electronic voting is finally being widely adopted in the United States and several other countries.

Unfortunately, in countless local contests in the United States over the past few years, electronic voting has shown itself to be an immature technology. In election after election, machines have crashed or failed to boot up at all, or experienced other software glitches or power-related hardware problems. Perplexed, undertrained operators only made matters worse.

Electronic voting systems do eliminate many of the problems of paper-based ballots, such as Florida's hanging chads and butterfly ballot layouts. But in their rush to deploy the new technology, voting officials are in some cases giving up one of the fundamental requirements of a well-run election: the ability to do an independent recount.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that many, if not most, of the electronic voting machines that have been deployed so far have been incapable of issuing a printed ballot or receipt. So, for these machines there would be nothing to recount if an election were questioned, as the presidential one was in Florida four years ago. In short, people using these direct-recording systems will have no assurance that their ballots were cast at all, let alone as intended.

That such a seemingly straightforward design challenge has proved so elusive may seem surprising. But, as Senior Associate Editor Steven Cherry points out in "The Perils of Polling," running an honest election isn't as simple as it appears. In the United States, a major complication is that elections are run individually by the 50 states using many different polling systems. Another is the misplaced trust of state and local bureaucrats responsible for choosing and deploying election equipment, who have been insufficiently skeptical of claims made by some manufacturers. Then there's the way the profit-driven vendors themselves rushed some of their machines to market. Finally, there is the system design challenge itself, which for voting machines is much more difficult than most people realize.

Technical remedies for what ails electronic voting are in the laboratory. Cherry describes one promising possibility, the brainchild of cryptography expert David Chaum. But whether these solutions ever escape from the laboratory will depend on time, money, and most of all, how noisily the voting public insists on transparency and verifiability.

In the meantime, if the record of recent local and other elections is any guide, it's likely that some machines will fail, perhaps in battlegrounds like Florida. And if a few thousand votes decide the state, and even the national outcome--again--look for another uproar this November.

Engineering Ingenuity 1, Bureaucracy 0

Since it started orbiting Saturn last June, the Cassini mission has returned stunning images of the ringed gas giant and its enigmatic moons. But Cassini's most dramatic chapter will come in January, when a European lander probe called Huygens, which has been piggybacking on Cassini, is sent on a fiery plunge into the murky atmosphere of Saturn's largest and most mysterious moon, Titan. But what may be hailed in the end as one of the great triumphs in space science would instead have surely turned into one of the most egregious fiascoes if not for the persistence of a Swedish engineer named Boris Smeds.

Titan is completely covered by a thick orange haze of hydrocarbons, and scientists have speculated that oily oceans of methane and ethane may roil beneath the cloaking clouds. After slamming into Titan's atmosphere at 21 000 kilometers per hour, Huygens will pop its parachutes and make a leisurely, two-and-a-half-hour descent through the atmosphere. On its way down it's expected to transmit a scientific bonanza from its cameras and instruments, which will be relayed to Earth by transceivers onboard Cassini.

But at launch time, seven years ago, a flaw lurking in Cassini's receivers meant that the data was going to be hopelessly scrambled. Along with his allies at the European Space Agency, Smeds developed and championed a rigorous test that revealed the flaw and its cause in time for engineers to come up with a fix. As James Oberg relates in "Titan Calling," doing so required Smeds to battle bureaucracy, commute between Darmstadt, Germany, and a NASA antenna farm deep in California's Mojave Desert, and use all his engineering insight and creativity to expose the flaw before time ran out.

In the finest tradition of the space program, Smeds showed that engineers, too, can have the Right Stuff.

The editorial contents of IEEE Spectrum magazine does not represent official positions of the IEEE or its organizational units. Please address comments to Forum atn.hantman@ieee.org.

To Probe Further

There are a number of sites devoted to improving electronic voting security and reliability. Among them are those of the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation Inc. (http://verifiedvoting.org); Black Box Voting, a site created by Bev Harris, author of a self-published book of the same name (http://www.blackboxvoting.com); and Rebecca Mercuri's Notable Software Inc. (http://www.notablesoftware.com).

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in Vienna, a 55-nation consortium that plans to send observers to monitor the 2004 U.S. presidential election, can be found at http://www.osce.org. In addition, the Verified Voting Foundation is also organizing and training technology experts to monitor the election. As of August, more than 700 volunteers had signed up. For details, see http://vevo.verifiedvoting.org/techwatch/.

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