Election watchdogs keep wary eye on paperless e-voting systems
As the clock winds down to what could turn out to be an extremely close presidential race, some election watchdogs are keeping a wary eye on paperless electronic voting machines that are scheduled to be used in several key states and jurisdictions around the country.
Paperless systems are basically Direct Recording Electronic systems (DREs) in which voters cast their ballots in a completely electronic fashion by using push buttons or touchscreens.
Some DREs allow voters to print out a paper copy of their ballots to verify that their vote was cast as intended. Election watchdog groups such as Verified Voting and Common Cause and academicians have insisted that such a voter-verifiable paper-audit trail (VVPAT) is vital to ensuring the integrity of the vote in jurisdictions that use DREs.
But a total of 16 states will, to varying extents, use DREs that do not support a paper trail as their standard polling place equipment, according to Verified Voting.
Of these, six states—New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana—will be completely paperless. All ballots that are cast in these states will be on DREs that support no paper trail whatsoever.
The remaining states, which include Texas, Colorado, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania, will use a mix of paper ballots and DRE voting systems that are paperless. But even here, the states of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee will be almost completely reliant on paperless electronic voting systems.
For instance, all but two counties will use paperless DREs in Tennessee, while all but seven of 134 countries in Virginia will use paperless systems. Meanwhile, in a handful of states like Florida only voters with physical disabilities will use paperless DREs.
DRE causes some worries
The extensive use of these systems in the upcoming elections is troubling, said Pamela Smith, the president of Verified Voting. Ideally, all jurisdictions around the country should be using voter-marked paper ballots and optical scanners for counting the votes, Smith said.
But if a DRE is being used, it should support a paper trail at the very minimum, she said. "There is a strong chance that a DRE system is working the way it should," she said. "The problem is there is no way to confirm that easily," she said.
Because there is no independent paper record of a vote, manual post-election audits of paperless voting systems are impossible, she said. So if a paperless DRE system were to malfunction or record or count votes incorrectly, it would be very hard to verify the accuracy of the results, she said.
Election day mishaps involving DREs are not all that rare, according to a report earlier this year by Verified Voting.
In 2011, during the Democratic primary elections in New Jersey's Cumberland County, a paperless DRE system attributed votes to the wrong candidates and ended up declaring the actual losers as winners of the election. A new election was held later after the New Jersey attorney general acknowledged that the system had switched votes because it had been programmed incorrectly, the report said.
In 2004, a touchscreen DRE in North Carolina's Carteret County lost 4,500 votes due to a memory problem. Because there were no paper records, "it was impossible to determine how those lost votes should have been counted," the Verified Voting reported. Since then the state has moved to paper ballots, optical scanners, and VVPAT-equipped DRE systems.
During primaries elections in May 2011, several voters in Pennsylvania's Venango County complained that their votes had been flipped from one party to another by the paperless DRE systems that were being used by the county. Similar complaints have been reported elsewhere. In some of the cases, election officials blamed the problem on screen calibration errors and programming errors.
Experts weigh in
"You can't do a post-election vote tabulation audit in such cases because there is no independent record of the votes," Smith said. "You are checking the system against itself. It is sort of a circular argument," she said. Even a few incorrectly counted or missing votes could make all the difference in a tight election especially if it happens in a key swing state, she said.
Thad Hall, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, said paperless DRE systems offer a degree of auditability, but not much.
"If you vote on a paperless DRE system, there are places within the machine that record the data," Hall said. "But if I don't trust the machine, I'm not going to trust the backup electronic records," said Hall, who was one of the authors of a recent MIT/Caltech report on e-voting technologies. "Sure they are auditable. The problem is that people are not going to believe the audit record," because it is not independent of the system.
Several states, including New Jersey and Maryland, have passed legislation mandating a move to paper ballots, but budget constraints have kept them on paperless DRE systems, Hall and Smith said.
But William Kelleher, CEO of The Internet Voting Research and Education Fund, said concerns about paperless DRE systems are overblown. "Just because the DREs have a "black box" in which votes are stored and tallied, doesn't mean the machines shouldn't be trusted," Kelleher said in an email.
Machines may make rare counting errors if, for example, they are in need of recalibration, he said. "But humans make far more counting errors than the computers in the DREs. Perfection is not a standard that pragmatic people expect. Our election officials have determined that when the costs and benefits are balanced, paperless DREs present an acceptable risk."