Technology and process upgrades implemented since the controversial 2000 presidential election have made electronic voting machines more secure and reliable to use, the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project said in a report last week. Even so, the only way to ensure the integrity of votes cast with the systems is to have mandatory auditing of the results and of all voting technologies used in an election, the 85-page report cautioned. Rather than setting security standards for election equipment, the better approach for safeguarding ballot integrity is to hand-count a sufficiently large and random sample of the paper records of votes cast electronically, it said. “The 2000 United States presidential election put a spotlight on the fragility and vulnerability of voting technology,” the report said. “It became clear that providing robust, accurate, and secure voting systems remained an important open technical problem” for the United States. The Voting Technology Project is a joint initiative between MIT and Caltech and was launched originally to investigate the causes of the voting problems in Florida in 2000 and to make recommendations based on the findings.
Some progress has been made since 2000, said Michael Alvarez, professor of political science at Caltech and co-director of the Voting Technology Project. The antiquated lever voting and punch card systems that led to the infamous hanging chad fiasco in Florida have been mostly replaced with newer, more reliable optical scan and electronic voting systems, he said. In the upcoming Nov. 6 elections, nearly three out of five counties will use optical-scan technology, with the rest relying on some form of direct record electronic systems. Only a very small number will use purely hand-counted paper ballots.
In the past 10 years, there has also been a move away from all-electronic voting systems to electronic systems that support a voter verifiable paper ballot trail, the report noted. Much of that particular trend has been by driven security concerns related to Direct Record Electronic (DRE) voting machines from companies such as Diebold. The machines processed and stored all ballots electronically and offered little way for voters and election officially to determine for certain whether votes were being recorded as intended or counted as cast. Studies conducted by numerous researchers over the past few years have shown such DRE systems to be highly vulnerable to all sorts of tampering and compromises because of their poor design and engineering. Because of such concerns, much attention has been paid to ensure that votes cast electronically this year have a paper record that can be counted and verified manually if needed. States such as California in particular have led the effort to get voting machine vendors to implement better security. The report pointed to the state’s decertification of all DRE machines in 2007 as one example.