Direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines were introduced in an effort to improve the voting process, but their usefulness remains controversial. Originally developed in the 1970s, DRE usage has increased nationwide in each subsequent federal election. However, it was not until after the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election's problems with pregnant and hanging chads and the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) that voting technology became more widely discussed and the electronic voting machines debate gained momentum.
Proponents of electronic voting machines tout them as being able to unambiguously capture the intent of a voter, capable of preventing residual votes, easy to use, and accessible to disabled, illiterate, and non-English speaking voters.
Opponents of electronic voting machines believe DREs give too much control over public elections to their private manufacturers, are vulnerable to hacking and other forms of tampering, do not allow for meaningful audits and recounts, and do not permit voters to verify their votes were recorded as intended.
There is considerable debate between election officials, computer scientists, political scientists, advocates for the disabled, and concerned citizens as to whether electronic voting machines improve the voting process or not. The topics below are arranged to give readers an overview of the debate.
2. Brief History of Electronic Voting Machines
A direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machine is used for the first time in a real election. This voting system, named the Video Voter, had been patented a year earlier by Richard McKay.
Problems with punchcard voting systems, particularly in Florida, in the Presidential Election between George W. Bush and Al Gore bring attention to voting technology and election administration.
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) is signed into law in an effort to improve voting systems nationwide. HAVA authorizes $3.9 billion in federal funds to replace punchcard systems and lever machines with either DREs or optical scan systems, mandates that all polling places have a minimum of one handicap-accessible voting device such as a DRE, and establishes the Election Assistance Commission to oversee federal election administration.
Computer security experts Avi Rubin and Dan Wallach perform a security analysis of a particular model of electronic voting machine based on source code they found on the Internet. Their analysis reveals several vulnerabilities and inspires many computer scientists to join the debate over the use of electronic voting machines in federal elections.
The CEO of Diebold, Inc., a manufacturer of electronic voting machines, stirs political controversy when he sends a fund-raising letter on Aug. 14 in which he states "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." Because Diebold sells voting machines in Ohio and the president is a member of a particular political party, some people interpret these statements as a partisan conflict of interest.
Nevada becomes the first state to mandate that all electronic voting machines used for federal elections be equipped with printers that produce a voter verified paper audit trail.
Use of DREs in the federal General Election is the highest in U.S. history. According to Election Data Services "thirty-six percent (36%) of the counties, with 38.4% of the registered voters, [used] direct recording electronic (DRE) equipment."
PRO: "[Former Diebold CEO Walden] O'Dell's comments brought out of the shadows the company's history of staunchly supporting the Republican Party, and shed some light on the conflicts of interest within the DRE manufacturing industry as a whole. Diebold and its executives have contributed some $409,170 to Republican candidates and the Republican National Committee since 2001, while contributing only $2,500 to Democrats in the same time frame."
"Nov. Surprise: Electronic Voting Machines Add Uncertainty to Close Election Races," www.corpwatch.org
Sep. 8, 2004
CON: "Each of our members has policies governing political and partisan activity. The policies either prohibit, or set strict standards for, engagement in political activity. Furthermore, the commonly-held belief that voting systems manufacturers have been particularly active in partisan activity is simply not based in fact."
-- Harris Miller
Former President, Information Technology Association of America
Letter to U.S. Representatives John Conyers, Jr.
Apr. 15, 2005
PRO: "Millions of citizens are casting ballots that would otherwise be lost without industry innovation. Millions more have the promise of voting a secret ballot for the first time. In short, this [electronic voting systems] industry plays an important role in building a stronger democracy for all Americans."
-- David Hart
Chairman of Hart InterCivic, an electronic voting machine manufacturer
Press release to announce the formation of the Election Technology Council, www.electiontech.org
Sep. 8, 2004
CON: "Many citizens and even a few politicians are wondering if it's a good idea for corporations to be so involved in the guts of our voting system. The whole idea of a democratic republic was to create a common institution (the government itself) owned by its citizens, answerable to its citizens, and authorized to exist and continue existing solely 'by the consent of the governed.'"
-- Thom Hartmann
Author and Radio Show Host
"If You Want To Win An Election, Just Control The Voting Machines," Common Dreams
Jan. 31, 2003
PRO: "Analysis of the [Diebold AccuVote-TS] machine, in light of real election procedures, shows that it is vulnerable to extremely serious attacks. For example, an attacker who gets physical access to a machine or its removable memory card for as little as one minute could install malicious code; malicious code on a machine could steal votes undetectably, modifying all records, logs, and counters to be consistent with the fraudulent vote count it creates. An attacker could also create malicious code that spreads automatically and silently from machine to machine during normal election activities - a voting-machine virus."
-- Edward Felten, PhD
Director, Secure Internet Programming Laboratory, Princeton University
"Security Analysis of the Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting Machine," Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University
Sep. 13, 2006
CON: "DRE systems do not feature keyboards or other peripherals that enable an infiltrator to tamper with software code or vote tabulations. Memory is locked in machines. Software code resident in voting machines passes through a series of checks performed by vendor personnel, certification professionals, government officials, multiparty observers and poll workers... Voting machines are not connected to the Internet, barring the possibility of over the network hacking. System access is protected by passwords, and the machines create extensive audit logs that document all system events, including malfunctions or tampering attempts... DRE systems do not connect to the Internet and so cannot be hacked."
PRO: "Throughout most of the history of voting, the magnitude of fraud was strongly dependent on the number of people or on the effort required to commit fraudulent acts such as stuffing ballot boxes - larger numbers of fraudulent votes required a larger number of people. However, when computers are involved, a small number of individuals - albeit technically sophisticated individuals with high degrees of access to the internals of these computers - become capable of committing fraud on a very large scale. Furthermore, because the software of computer systems is intangible, the difficulty of detecting such attempts is greatly increased."
CON: "The United States has been using direct-recording electronic voting equipment for well over 20 years without a single verified incident of successful tampering...
Every form of paper ballot that has ever been devised can and has been manipulated, in general with considerable ease. The reason is that humans are familiar with paper and its characteristics, how to mark it to look genuine and how to erase it. By contrast, altering redundant encrypted write-once computer records is impossible even for experts. So assuming that the electronic voting records are written correctly in the first place, the possibility of modifying them later is remote."
-- Michael Shamos, PhD, JD
Professor of Computer Science, Carnegie-Mellon University
"Paper v. Electronic Voting Records - An Assessment," Proceedings of the 14th ACM Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy
PRO: "The advantages of DRE systems include: no 'chad'; eliminating the possibility of an 'overvote' (or making more selections than permissible) and advising the voter of any 'undervote' (when a voter makes fewer than the maximum number of permissible selections in a contest);...eliminating marking devices which can result in questions of voter intent; and providing a review screen before a voter casts a ballot."
CON: "The sensors in touch screen devices can be knocked out of alignment by shock and vibration that may occur during transport. Unless these sensors are realigned at the polling place prior to the start of voting, touch screen machines can misinterpret a voter's intent. For example, a voter might touch the part of the screen identified with candidate Jones, but candidate Smith's box would light up instead."
-- Ellen Theisen
CEO of the Vote-PAD Company
Myth Breakers: Facts About Electronic Elections
PRO: "These [electronic voting] systems are also designed not to allow overvotes. For example, if a voter selects a second choice in a two-way race, the first choice is deselected. In addition to this standard feature, different types of systems offer a variety of options, including...
A 'no vote' option. If allowed by the state, this option helps avoid unintentional undervotes. This provides the voter with the option to select 'no vote' (or abstain) on the display screen if the voter does not want to vote on a particular contest or issue
A 'review' feature. This feature requires voters to review each page of the ballot before pressing the button to cast the vote.
Visual enhancements. These features include, for example, color highlighting of ballot choices and candidate pictures."
-- Government Accountability Office
Elections: Federal Efforts to Improve Security and Reliability of Electronic Voting Systems Are Under Way, But Key Activities Need to Be Completed
CON: "Paper ballots, lever machines, and optically scanned ballots have the lowest average and median residual vote rates. The average residual voting rates of these technologies are significantly lower than the average residual voting rates of punch cards and electronic voting equipment. The differences among punch card methods and electronic voting equipment are not statistically significant. Punch cards and electronic machines register residual voting rates for president of approximately 3 percent of all ballots cast. Paper ballots, lever machines, and optically scanned ballots produce residual voting rates of approximately 2 percent of all ballots cast, a statistically significant difference of fully one percent. Or to put the matter differently, the residual voting rate of punch card methods and electronic devices is 50 percent higher than the residual voting rate of manually counted paper ballots, lever machines, and optically scanned ballots."
-- Stephen Ansolabehere
Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"Residual Votes Attributable to Technology: An Assessment of the Reliability of Existing Voting Equipment," www.vote.caltech.edu
PRO: "Multiple, overlapping audit trails of the number of voters who have voted and the number of ballots cast as well as votes that were canceled are recorded in each precinct on Election Day, and compiled and retained after the election. After the polls close these numbers are reconciled with the numbers produced by the electronic voting system during the vote tally and any 'extra' votes or cancellations would be immediately identified. These numerous checks and balances that must all be strictly followed ensure that every voter is afforded the opportunity to cast a secret ballot that is the true and accurate intent of the voter."
-- Kathy Rogers
Director of Election Administration, State of Georgia
Testimony before the Election Assistance Commission
May 5, 2004
CON: "The suggestion has been made, however, that the requirement of a paper record to be used for a manual audit can be satisfied by a paper record of votes that is produced for the time after the polls have closed... A paper record consisting solely of ballots printed by the computer after the closing of the polls - and therefore never seen by the voters - would mean that a manual audit or recount would simply amount to reviewing what was stored in the computer. The audit or recount could not manually verify that the computer had accurately recorded the voter's intent, or had accurately stored that information, or had accurately printed out that information. Both an audit and a recount, therefore, would miss the key element of the system - whether the voter's intention had been accurately recorded."
-- Darryl Wold, JD
Former Chairman, Federal Election Commission
"The HAVA Requirement for a Voter Verified Paper Record," www.verifiedvotingfoundation.org
July 23, 2003
PRO: "Under HAVA, there must be a paper record of each vote from a DRE voting system. In well-run systems, the printouts with vote totals are taken throughout Election Day and compared to the total number of votes cast at the machine, to ensure security. The paper records then provide a backup for official tabulations of election results. In addition to vote totals, DREs can print out each individual ballot (without identifying the voter) to provide an additional security and audit capacity. Not only can this data be printed, it is saved electronically in multiple formats in multiple locations, so that if one mechanism fails, the information is backed up using another format in another location. In other words, DREs in well-administered systems provide a substantial audit capacity for purposes of recounts and authentication."
-- Kay Maxwell
Former President, League of Women Voters
Testimony before the U.S. Election Assistance Commission
May 5, 2004
CON: "Most DRE machines do not provide an independent record of each individual ballot that can be used in a recount to check the machine for error or tampering. It is impossible to check if the voting machine records a vote in its memory different than the one the voter cast. When someone votes using a punch card ballot or an optical scan machine, those ballots are saved and can be counted if an election is called into question. The paper ballots can be compared to the machine vote. DRE machines do not provide that capability."
-- Tova Andrea Wang, JD
Democracy Fellow, The Century Foundation
"Understanding the Debate Over Electronic Voting Machines," www.reformelections.org
May 26, 2004
PRO: "All fully-electronic (touchscreen, DRE, Internet) voting systems are subject to the limitations and risks of computer technology. This includes the inability of examination, no matter how thorough, to detect the presence of hardware and/or software that could be used, deliberately or inadvertently, to alter election outcomes...
Democratic elections require independent verification that a) all balloting choices have been recorded as intended and b) vote totals have been reliably and indisputably created from the same material examined by the voters. A Voter Verified Paper Ballot (VVPB) provides an auditable way to assure voters that their ballots will be available to be counted...
Without VVPB there is no way to independently audit the election results. Equipment failures, configurations and programming errors have resulted in costly election recalls and disputes that could have been prevented with VVPB."
-- Rebecca Mercuri, PhD
President, Notable Sofware and Knowledge Concepts
"Facts About Voter Verified Paper Ballots," www.notablesoftware.com/evote.html
Feb. 23, 2004
CON: "Adding another federal requirement for Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting systems to be retrofitted with a voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) component invites a number of problems that could, unintentionally, shatter the system and significantly erode public confidence in the process...The fact is that existing DRE systems without VVPAT have the proven track record of doing the best job of all available voting systems in achieving the goal of accurate casting, tabulation and reporting of all votes in accordance with the voters' intentions...
This debate also needs to recognize practical considerations including significant costs, paper jams and malfunctioning printers, voter delays, difficulty for poll workers, and meaningless receipts. If DRE programming can be manipulated, that same logic dictates that the programming could be surreptitiously altered to change election results after the paper ballot is printed."
-- Conny McCormack, PhD
Registrar of Voters - Recorder/County Clerk, Los Angeles County, California
Testimony before U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration
June 21, 2005
PRO: "When the system successfully passes the State Certification and is certified for use in Georgia, the KSU [Kennesaw State University] Center for Election Systems prepares an electronic signature of the system and archives the software source code and object code... When the vendor notifies the State that they have completed installation in a particular county, the KSU Center for Election Systems sends a team to the county to conduct Acceptance Tests. These tests verify that the hardware is operating correctly and the correct version of the software has been installed. During these tests the electronic signature of the software installed in the county is compared with the electronic signature of the software archived by the KSU Center for Election Systems to validate that the county system is identical to the system that was State certified."
-- Britain Williams, PhD
Electronic Voting System Examiner, State of Georgia
Testimony before the U.S. Election Assistance Commission
May 5, 2004
CON: "Unfortunately, the self-reported identity of a piece of software does nothing to assure an observer that this software is honest... The use of 'software fingerprints' computed by some cryptographically secure hash function does nothing to change this fact. So long as the observer is limited to inspecting the self-declaration of identity of the system, there is no way for the observer to know whether that identity is declared honestly or not... Only if the observer can directly examine the memory of the computer and compare it with a reference memory image can the observer really know that what is in the computer and what is authorized to be there are the same. If we allow this comparison, we compromise the author's right to retain this software as a trade secret. In addition, if we are not very careful, the same memory access that allows inspection can also allow modification, thus elevating the election observer to the status of a security threat."
-- Doug Jones, PhD
Professor of Computer Science, University of Iowa
Testimony before the Technical Guidelines Development Committee
Sep. 20, 2004
PRO: "Empirical evidence of these voter sentiments came in Feb. 2003 when the University of Georgia's Car Vinson Institute of Government released the results of an independent poll showing...that 97% of respondents reported that they had no difficulties using the new touch screen voting terminals... The Vinson Institute's survey, which polled 800 randomly selected adults and is projected to have a margin of error of +/- 3.5%, demonstrates that voters found the equipment easy to use."
-- Cathy Cox, JD
Former Georgia Secretary of State
Touch the Future of Voting: Georgia's Guide to Election Reform
CON: "These systems have promise, but the bottom line is that about 10% of the voters we talked to had significant concerns. While 90% satisfaction may be acceptable for some usability studies, we feel strongly that digital government initiatives in general, and voting systems in particular must have higher standards. With important national elections being decided by less than 1% of the voters, leaving 10% unconfident about their vote is a major problem."
-- Benjamin Bederson, PhD
Director, Computer-Human Interaction Lab, University of Maryland
"Electronic Voting System Usability Issues," CHI Letters
PRO: "Touchscreens are the only system which allows a voter with a disability to cast a secret and independent vote...
The audio ballot and adaptive aids, such as sip and puff and jelly switches, make it possible for all of these citizens to cast a secret and independent ballot... Tens of millions of Americans can and will vote secretly and independently if, and only if, they use a touchscreen voting machine."
-- Jim Dickson
Vice President, American Association of People with Disabilities
Testimony before the U.S. Election Assistance Commission
May 5, 2004
CON: "'Very few of our members were able to vote privately, independently, despite Santa Clara County's supposed accessible touch screens,' Dawn Wilcox, president of the Silicon Valley Council of the Blind [said]...
Among the criticisms provided by voters was poor sound quality, delayed response time and Braille that was positioned so awkwardly it could be read upside down. [Sam] Chen, a retired college professor, also said the audio message required blind voters to press a yellow button. 'Yellow means nothing to me,' Chen said."
-- Elise Ackerman
Journalist, San Jose Mercury News
"Blind Voters Rip E-Machines," San Jose Mercury News
May 15, 2004