Machine Politics

By Laura Spadanuta

Next month, U.S. citizens get to exercise their right to vote. But how can they know that their votes are truly counted? It is hard to forget Florida’s infamous hanging chads and butterfly ballots from the highly contested 2000 U.S. Presidential election. The controversy worked itself all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in unprecedented levels of attention to the nation’s varied voting methods.

Less well-remembered is Florida’s Congressional District 13 recount in Sarasota County in 2006. In that race, more than 18,000 votes went uncounted due to electronic voting errors. That’s just one example of how an approach that was supposed to solve the problems of 2000 led to problems of its own, such as technical vulnerabilities. It even perpetuated older problems, such as confusing ballot formats, which may have been behind those uncounted Sarasota votes.

The integrity of the voting system is integral to the health of a democracy and must be protected. But achieving that goal is not easy, as voting authorities struggling with various solutions have learned since the high-profile problems of 2000.

Electronic Voting

To address the voting problems that created such havoc in the Bush-Gore Presidential election, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed by Congress in 2002. HAVA provided federal funding for states to upgrade their voting systems in a way that would minimize the potential for a repeat of the dimpled chad fiasco. It also directed states to facilitate voting for the disabled.

The push for systems that both clearly recorded votes and accommodated the disabled contributed to the rise in popularity of electronic voting with what are called direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines. By 2004, nearly 30 percent of registered voters were voting on electronic machines, according to USA Today.

But it soon became clear that DRE machines created as many problems as they solved. In addition to what occurred in Sarasota, there have been numerous instances of votes not being counted and of software bugs disrupting elections.

There is one way in which the electronic voting machine problems are even worse than the older machines, says Donald Moynihan, professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has conducted voting machine studies.

“At least with older voting technologies, you can usually tell if something’s gone wrong and try to figure out the extent of the problem,” he says, “whereas with the [new electronic] voting machines, it wasn’t always going to be apparent if something failed.” Worse, “if failure did occur, these systems failed completely, so you could lose, for example, a set of votes from an entire precinct.”



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