More Scrutiny of E-Voting Due

>With nationwide elections in the United States now only two weeks away, many are increasingly focusing renewed attention on the hardware and software that will enable about 80 percent of Americans to cast their votes for political candidates. A federal law known as the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) requires election officials throughout the country to replace paper-based voting machines with controversial electronic equipment. It has led to quite a few reports that the new machines have flaws that could lead to vote tampering. Moreover, a subsequent provision of the law mandates that the states must build databases of registered voters and use these to check on the eligibility of individuals to cast ballots. In this month's news analysis "The Next Voting Debacle?", Senior Associate Editor Steven Cherry reviews the use of the databases that will guard the nation's polling booths on 7 November—and his findings are cause for concern.

Cherry writes that HAVA gives states wide latitude in reacting to database mismatches. If a voter's registration information and the data in other government databases differ, the act does not require that a state keep registrants off the rolls; but it also doesn't forbid the states to do so. State officials have therefore set up their own rules, which have resulted in mass purges of registrants in California, Iowa, South Dakota, Texas, and Washington. If you're a U.S. citizen interested in the technology used in elections, this item is must reading.

Cherry goes further into the topic on Spectrum Radio. In "Electronic Voting: Computerized Voter Rolls Pose Problems, Too", currently our top story (available as a podcast), he speaks with Wendy Weiser, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, in New York City. She notes that, among other suspect practices, some states are using the databases as a barrier to voting, for the most trivial of mismatches.

Of course, database problems are not the most controversial issue with electronic voting. That remains the province of the new polling machines. Recently, a group studying e-voting at Princeton University demonstrated how a malicious hacker could access a supposedly secure machine and, within a minute or so, download software that would cause it to tabulate false results—and even infect other units. (We blogged about this topic last month in "Worst Machine Ever?".) In this streaming video presentation by Edward Felten, director of the Center for Information Technology Policy, you can see for yourself just how easy this form of election fraud can be committed.

Expect even more scrutiny of the role of computers in e-voting after 2 November when HBO airs a documentary called "Hacking Democracy", in which the producers note that, "[C]oncerns over the integrity of electronic voting are growing by the day. And if the voting process is not secure, neither is America's democracy." (They point out, for example, that in the 2000 presidential race an e-voting machine recorded negative 16 022 votes for Al Gore in Volusia County, Fla.)

With the future direction of the United States riding on its national elections, Americans should be doing all they can to require officials to tighten the security of the new machines and systems that enable them to exercise their franchise and count their votes accurately as intended. It's the cornerstone of democracy. If it fails, democracy will fail with it.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.