Will Your Vote Count?
Bo Lipari

It’s Election Day. You walk into the voting booth and find yourself facing a computer with a touch screen. To vote, you press the names of the candidates, which appear on-screen. At first you are confident that your votes have been recorded correctly. It’s a computer, right, what could go wrong? Then, you begin to wonder. How do I know that the machine actually recorded my vote? You don’t.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America To Vote Act (HAVA), hoping to avert a repeat of the 2000 election fiasco in Florida. HAVA requires states to meet minimum standards in their election process, from voter registration to replacing paper and mechanical systems with the latest electronic voting technologies. New York State has applied for $140,000,000 of HAVA funding to replace 19,843 lever machines used in 15,571 election districts.

States and communities all over the country are planning to buy massive numbers of paperless touch screen “Direct Recording Electronic” (DRE) machines. Some states are already using them.

HAVA provisions must be implemented by 2004, but states may delay acting on specific portions of HAVA until 2006. Many states, including New York, have applied for this waiver. Other states like Maryland, Georgia, and Ohio will be voting with computers in the November 2004 presidential election.

DREs have advantages, chief among them that they offer improved accessibility for the disabled, an important issue. But unfortunately, using these machines without effective safeguards endangers democracy.

The Problem

A touch screen voting machine records your vote in the machine’s, where you can’t see it. How do you know your vote for candidate A wasn’t recorded as a vote for candidate B? You don’t!

DRE voting systems concern many computer professionals because they know how easy it is to write software that displays votes one way on a screen, records them another way, and tallies them yet another way. Unintentional software and hardware errors (bugs) and “hacks” installed into the voting machines by company insiders or malicious outsiders, are among many ways election results can be compromised. These problems can and do occur.

What About Testing?
Vendors of DRE systems say their software has been thoroughly tested, and there is no cause for concern. But for something as essential as our right to “one person, one vote,” such reliability must be proven beyond doubt. An enforceable US standard for design, construction, and testing of election voting equipment does not yet exist. All current voting product “testing” is paid for by DRE vendors and performed in secrecy. Detailed result reports are not released for public scrutiny.

Have problems with DRE machines been seen in real elections?
Existing “certified” DRE systems have already exhibited serious flaws. Voting systems in Georgia locked up after a few hours’ use, despite being tested in a mock election with more votes than a typical machine got during the real election. In March 2002, in Wellington, Florida, there was a runoff election between two candidates. The final tally was 1,263 to 1,259, but 78 ballots had no recorded vote. The implausible explanation was made that those 78 people came to the polls, went into the voting booth, and yet chose not to vote for the only office on the ballot! Since there was no paper record of the vote, it was impossible to resolve the question.

Voter Verified Paper Ballots (VVPB)

The best way to address most of the risks in computerized voting is to pair electronic voting with paper backup systems. This allows voters to inspect their vote on a printed paper ballot before leaving the voting booth.

DREs must have printer attachments to produce a paper record that the voter can see before it is securely stored. After the voter uses the touch screen to vote, a paper ballot is printed and displayed. Voters then verify that their vote is correctly recorded on the paper ballot. If the printed ballot is correct, the voter confirms the choice, and this physical record of the vote is stored in a secure ballot box in the voting booth. The ballots are of course anonymous. Because a DRE system like this has a physical record of each vote, the vendor’s software no longer needs to reach unreasonably high standards of quality and security. This paper ballot is the official record of the vote, and is used whenever a recount is required.

Many states require a manual recount whenever the margin of votes is smaller than a specific percentage. Also, a recount is required whenever the results of an election are suspect, or challenged by any of the candidates. Finally, it’s important to have a reasonable number of mandatory, random recounts of the paper ballots in order to verify that the computer results match the manual results without fail. Differences between the machine and manual totals would indicate a software malfunction. Since the paper ballot is the official record, one’s vote can still be accurately counted even if the machine fails.

Opinions vary on what is the best way to tally votes. No voting system is without drawbacks, but a study has found that a purely paper system, where the voter marks a paper ballot, is probably the most reliable system of all. Canada successfully uses a purely paper ballot system, and its citizens seem happy with it.

What You Can Do
Federal and State legislation has been drafted that seeks to preserve our right to have our vote accurately counted. These bills not only require Voter Verifiable Paper Ballots, but contain other provisions designed to provide fair, secure and verifiable standards. Requirements that software be available for review by independent experts, bans on using wireless DRE networks, and a mandatory number of surprise recounts are some additional safeguards.

Concerned citizens have much work to do to convince their representatives to get these bills passed into law. Here’s where we stand in each legislature:
US House of Representatives - Call your Congressional Representative and ask them to support bill HR2239. Introduced by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) last May, it currently has 114 co-sponsors, both Democrat and Republican. Among other safeguards, it requires voter verified paper ballots.

HR2239, however, has not yet come up in the House for a vote, and will need more support before it can do so. In central New York State, Representatives Hinchey (22nd district), McNulty (21st), and Slaughter (28th) are co-sponsors. James Walsh and other representatives need to hear that citizens want this bill passed.

US Senate – Call Sen. Schumer and Clinton’s offices and ask them to co-sponsor S1980, which requires VVPB. It is identical to HR2239, which will make it easier to get through the House/Senate conference committee later. As of this writing, there are no co-sponsors in the Senate. For further details, visit: <www.verifiedvoting.org/fair_elections.asp>.

New York State – The State Assembly last year passed an excellent set of bills protecting the integrity of the entire voting process. Among them is A08847, which requires VVPB, a 2% mandatory recount of paper ballots, accessibility for the disabled, and opens the machine selection process to input from citizens. A08847 and related bills are now in the Senate Rules Committee and need to be voted on in the State Senate. Ask your State Senators to pass A08847’s equivalent in the Senate.

For more information, see New Yorkers for Verifiable Voting <www.nyvv.org>, or NYPIRG <www.nypirg.org/goodgov/hava/machines/>.