October 24, 2011 By Wayne Hanson
Pamela Smith and the Verified Voting Foundation (VVF) are on a mission — in her words — "to safeguard elections in the digital age."
In an earlier time, she said, ballot boxes were inspected the morning before voting began then were padlocked. Voters would insert their paper ballots, and when the polls closed, officials would unlock the boxes and count the ballots. Smith, the foundation’s president, isn't advocating a return to those simpler days, but she says that some modern electronic voting systems present unique challenges that make democracy vulnerable to tampering.
With some systems, said Smith, the voter marks a paper ballot, which then goes through an electronic scanner for tallying the vote. With that kind of system, she said, there's a hard-copy record of the vote that can be used to audit accuracy, or in the event of a recount.
The foundation's map of "America's Voting Systems in 2010" show a broad range of systems, from Oregon's vote-by-mail to South Carolina's "DRE without VVPAT," which signifies a direct recording electronic voting machine that has no voter-verified paper audit trail.
The liabilities of DRE without VVPAT were illustrated in the Washington state gubernatorial election of 2004, said Smith. "At that time there were some large jurisdictions using electronic voting machines that didn't have a paper record of any kind,” she said. “They did a statewide recount of a million paper ballots — but they couldn't recount the DRE ballots, so there was no way to tell if those were accurate."
How close was election? Christine Gregoire was elected governor by 133 votes. But because of the DRE component, said Smith, no one could be certain that was the accurate margin of victory.
Voters want confidence and certainty in the results. "They don't want to be told: 'Just trust us,'" Smith said.
South Carolina is one of six states marked on the foundation's map as using DRE without VVPAT, and Smith said there have been election anomalies and unexpected results that people found unusual. "But there was no way to authenticate it," she said. "There have been forensic examinations of some of the data and they've found problems with the electronic audit logs inside the voting machines."
Other states are making modifications to electronic voting systems. New Jersey passed a paper trail requirement back in 2005 scheduled for 2008 implementation, but it has been on hold because of the state’s budget. Maryland is following a similar track. Florida also changed to a paper backup system, with the exception that it’s using some DREs for those with disabilities.
Many jurisdictions enable independent voting for those with impaired vision or other disabilities by using electronic voting systems that feature auditory technology and similar assistance tools. Smith said that these "accessible ballot marking devices" also have the benefit of providing a paper backup. They use an interface that is similar to a DRE, she said, like a touchscreen voting machine with an audio interface. But instead of recording the vote electronically, it prints the vote onto a paper ballot, and that ballot can be reinserted into the ballot marking device and read back to the voter so that they can be sure it actually captured what they marked. Smith said Florida is moving to that type of system.
Vote by mail — a paper-based system — would seem to have few inherent disadvantages at first blush. Some states allow absentee voting that way, and Oregon has moved completely to vote-by-mail. While Smith said Oregon seems happy with it, it may not be successful for all jurisdictions. "Remote voting" ballots travel in the mail with no tracking or monitoring. And while Oregonians may trust the Postal Service, at least one bill in Congress aims to put Fed-X style tracking on vote-by-mail ballots.
Coercion and privacy are also considerations. People voting at a polling station, said Smith, "don't have anybody looking over their shoulder telling them how to vote, ‘or else.’" And voting from home can be susceptible to payment in exchange for votes. The big advantage of vote-by-mail is that it costs less, said Smith.
The Verified Voter Foundation is working on a report called "Is America Ready to Vote" that will update its 2008 report and give the latest data on voting system usage, criteria and more. It’s about democracy, said Smith. "If we don't like somebody or something, we can vote them out. But if you can't rely on the accuracy or reliability of the vote count, then you've got a problem. So our job is safeguarding democracy and getting us past that vulnerability."