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 electionwere 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 itcan’t happen in 2012.
Major policy changes are frequently spurred by crisis. The catalyst for America’s e-voting boom wasGore v. Bush and the 2000 presidential election debacle. Haunted by tales of butterfly ballots and hanging chads, Congress appropriated an unprecedented $2.3 billion in fiscal years 2003 and 2004 to help states purchase new voting equipment. Computerized voting machines were widely regarded as the next generation of voting technology, and vendors raced to introduce new touchscreen models to capture a share of the federal largesse.