Electoral tech: How e-voting has evolved

Though early American elections involved shouting out your vote to the county clerk, oh, how the times have changed. Thirty-one states now use electronic voting machines; the remaining 19 rely on paper ballots or punch cards.

The technological march from voices to touchscreens took hundreds of years, but widespread adoption of e-voting began in earnest a decade ago, shortly after the 2000 presidential election revealed the myriad ways in which outdated punch card and lever voting systems could throw the country into a tailspin.

But now new fears have arisen: Both paper ballots and electronic systems are vulnerable to fraud, as electronic votes often leave no paper record (depending on the jurisdiction). Without paper trails, fraud is easier to perpetrate and harder to detect. Many experts say the march toward e-voting, and even the specter of Internet voting, should be slowed until we figure out a way to craft a better system and defend it from attack.

The evolution of e-voting

Diebold voting machine.

Electronic voting has existed in various forms since the 1960s, when two University of California, Berkeley, professors adapted IBM’s Port-A-Punch card punch and prescored punch cards for voting. The pair founded Harris Votomatic, Inc., which was acquired by IBM in 1965, and began producing punch-ballot machines.

The problems Florida encountered in 2000 with hanging and dimpled chads existed even in the 1960s. IBM left the voting machine business in 1969, and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that federal election officials decided to study and draft standards for electronic voting machines to prevent voting machine salesmen from peddling defective wares to county polling places.

Now there are a handful of ways to vote electronically, though the most popular method is a direct-recording electronic voting machine (also called a DRE). DREs are equipped with touchscreens, rotary dials, or buttons. Some machines have a printing component to ensure that votes are recorded for later audit if necessary. The optical scan system, which uses an electronic scanner to read paper ballots, is also widely used in the United States.

Brazil in 1996 began using DREs almost exclusively. America slowly followed suit, though widespread adoption of the machines didn’t occur until 2002, when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. The act gave states more than $3 billion to upgrade their punch card and lever systems to electronic machines in the aftermath of Florida’s hanging chads.

The act also required polling places to add at least one voting system accessible to handicapped voters, which many states fulfilled by moving entirely to DREs. But there is no federally standardized e-voting system, and the pitfalls and advantages of each system vary state by state, and often county by county.

The best system

Casting an electronic vote.

Technology has changed just about every facet of American life, so it’s no surprise that voting should also be subject to electronic advancements. But cybersecurity and political science experts warn that e-voting machines without paper trails can lead to election fraud.

Small-scale issues such as electronic votes in North Carolina in 2004 going unrecorded due to machine memory limits, or files in a New Jersey committee election being deleted rank low on the list of potential catastrophes, such as a virus loaded onto a machine that infects all e-voting equipment.

“There are ways to use technology in polling places that are really beneficial,” says J. Alex Halderman, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “The problem is, we need to avoid a situation where the only record of that vote that counts is one that is invisibly calculated inside the computer.”

Halderman said safety measures such as printing paper records of each vote can ensure that elections run smoothly, even in the event of glitches or hacks.

The Verified Voting Foundation tracks each state’s use of election equipment. Only two states, Nevada and Utah, use DREs exclusively with voter-verified paper audit trail printers that create records of each vote cast. Others, such as Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina, use e-voting machines with no paper trail. Seven states, including Florida, use a mix of paper ballots in some counties and DREs in others without audit printers. Some counties in Idaho still rely on punch-card ballots.

According to an October report from the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, election technology should be standardized across the country to prevent the confusion that often arises when states or counties use widely varying systems.

“Right now the market is highly fragmented, in part because different states have different requirements,” the report concludes. “Harmonization would help reduce costs, especially if accompanied by increased information sharing on best practices and common problems.”

Verified Voting Foundation President Pamela Smith says, “there’s no real perfect voting system,” and systems should be tailored for the needs of the residents in that jurisdiction. But she adds that systems need a back-up plan, a paper trail, just in case.

“I think we should have evidence-based elections,” Smith says. “We should have a system that’s resilient for voters to use even if the power is out. Since 2004, we’ve seen a flurry of states pass verified paper ballot laws. A number of states are doing post-election audits. That used to be extremely rare.”

The wave of the future?

Twelve states allow online voter registration, which has significantly boosted registration numbers this year in states such as California. We do everything else online—live, work, and play—so Internet voter registration and online elections seem like a natural progression.

With so many of our daily activities entwined with the Internet, it’s possible that voter turnout would increase if online voting was implemented. But Smith says there’s no real evidence to support that scenario—at least not yet.

Countries such as Estonia use Internet voting and have reported successful outcomes, though Halderman of the University of Michigan says there’s no way to ensure that those countries haven’t been unsuspecting victims of voting fraud.

The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009 made it possible for U.S. service members and citizens living overseas to vote online or e-mail their ballots to election officials. But don’t expect online voting to catch on in the United States, at least not anytime soon.

“With online transactions like banking and shopping, one of the things people don’t know is that online merchants and banks lose billions of dollars a year to online fraud,” Verified Voting’s Smith says. “It’s a cost of doing business that is, so far, acceptable, because in the cost-benefit analysis you find you’re still making money, so it’s okay if you lose some money. With voting, you have to ask yourself: How many votes are we willing to lose?”

In 2010, Washington D.C. was preparing to roll out a pilot Internet voting system, but the city first allowed Halderman and his team of University of Michigan students to take a crack at hacking the system. The U of M crew took less than 48 hours to take control of the server and change each vote. The only way officials even knew they had been hacked was the calling card Halderman left: the Michigan fight song.

“To do online voting securely, we’re going to have to solve some of the most challenging problems in computer security today—we’re going to have to protect servers against advanced persistent threats,” Halderman says. “Google, the White house, all of them have had their servers broken into by sophisticated attackers linked to foreign governments. You can imagine those same sorts of attackers would want to target an Internet voting system if they had the opportunity to influence our foreign policy.”

But, he adds, maybe someday cybersecurity experts will be able to safeguard an online election system. Until then, Smith says, we “owe it to ourselves as a nation to secure our system. It’s like opening Pandora’s box. We’re not there yet.”

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