[telecom] Paper prophets: Why e-voting is on the decline in the United States

Paper prophets: Why e-voting is on the decline in the United States States see the virtue of paper ballots, but some lack funds to ditch e-voting.

by Timothy B. Lee Oct 22 2012 Ars Technica

Ernest Zirkle was puzzled. The resident of Fairfield Township in Cumberland County, NJ, ran for a seat on his local Democratic Executive Committee on June 7, 2011. The official results showed him earning only nine votes, compared to 34 votes for the winning candidate.

But at least 28 people told Zirkle they voted for him. So he and his wife-who also ran for an open seat and lost-challenged the result in court. Eventually, a county election official admitted the result was due to a programming error. A security expert from Princeton was called in to examine the machines and make sure no foul play had occurred. Unfortunately, when he examined the equipment on August 17,

2011, he found someone deleted key files the previous day, making it impossible to investigate the cause of the malfunction. A new election was held on September 27, and the Zirkles won.

A decade ago, there was a great deal of momentum toward paperless electronic voting. Spooked by the chaos of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, Congress unleashed a torrent of money to buy new high-tech machines. Today, momentum is in the opposite direction. Computer security researchers have convinced most observers that machines like the ones in Fairfield Township degrade the security and reliability of elections rather than enhancing them. Several states passed laws mandating an end to paperless elections. But bureaucratic inertia and tight budgets have slowed the pace at which these flawed machines can be retired.

Luckily, no e-voting catastrophes seem to have occurred. The irregularities that have risen to public attention since 2006 have tended to be small-scale or low-stakes incidents like the one in Fairfield Township. But lack of high-profile failure is not an argument for complacency. If an election were stolen by hackers in a state that used paperless voting machines, we wouldn't necessarily be able to detect it. Just because a major disaster hasn't happened in recent elections doesn't mean it can't happen in 2012.


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***** Moderator's Note *****

It's impossible to say if any "e-voting catastrophes" have occurred, or if pivotal local and state elections that saw reformers defeated have been "decided" by jerrymandered e-votes - just that nobody ever got caught. I think that George W. Bush was elected by Diebold's voting software, not the voters, and I'll carry that suspicion to my grave.

Those few computer security experts who were given access to Diebold's software were unanimous in thier criticism of the design concepts, the implementations, and the lack of ordinary security features. They couldn't discuss details - in itself, a tragedy - but everyone I've seen interviewed said "They did it wrong" in one way or another.

Say what you want about paper ballots, but there's one thing that nobody can say - that paper ballots are proprietary or privileged or too complicated for ordinary people to undertand. If voters like me believe the process is corrupt at its core, then we cease to live in a democracy.

Bill Horne Moderator

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Monty Solomon
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