VERIFYING VOTES through a recount, as was done in the 2000 presidential election in Palm Beach County, Florida, has proved to be a stumbling block for all-electronic voting systems that have been proposed. Image: BRUCE WEAVER AFP/CORBIS
Even before the last chad was detached in the 2000 Florida election fiasco, discussions began about how to improve the voting systems in the 170,000-odd jurisdictions in the U.S. The Help America Vote Act, which passed in October 2002, allocates $3.8 billion to modernize voting systems across the nation. In large part, that modernization has led to the consideration of computerized voting. But although everyone agrees that punch cards must go, so far no one can agree on standards for the systems to replace them. The biggest bone of contention: finding a way to let voters check that their votes have been cast the way they intended. The solution, in fact, may lie with paper.
To develop standards that all voting machines would meet, the Help America Vote Act turned to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Project 1583 is the resulting effort and is intended, the IEEE summary says, to assure confidentiality, security, reliability, accuracy, usability and accessibility. To set standards, an IEEE working group first puts together a draft proposal, which it sends out for public comment. Then the draft must pass a vote by the members of the standards association, a subset of the IEEE¿s worldwide membership.
Like many standards efforts, most of the working-group members represent vendors, including Diebold Election Systems in McKinney, Tex., Election Systems and Software in Omaha, Neb., and the multinational election.com. Nonvendor members include cryptographer and digital-cash inventor David Chaum, Stanford University computer scientist David L. Dill, who also runs the Verified Voting campaign Web site, and Rebecca Mercuri, a fellow at Harvard University who wrote her dissertation on electronic voting systems.
The working group¿s September 2003 vote on adoption of the then current draft failed after nearly 500 people wrote to the IEEE pointing out flaws. The concerns had to do primarily with security and voter verifiability¿that is, a method for polling officials to conduct a recount and for voters to ensure, before their ballots are finally cast, that they have voted the way they intended. It is unlikely that voting machines will be certified to the act¿s new standards before 2006.
The problem lies with all-electronic systems, known as "direct recording electronic," which are currently most likely to replace older machines. Although such systems can be tested¿cast a known quantity of votes and then check that the machine has counted them correctly¿there is no way to prove that the cast ballots were recorded properly or that those tallied bear any resemblance to actual votes, according to Mercuri. And there is no way to perform an independent audit. "To have a fair, democratic election, there has to be a visible, transparent way of performing recounts and confirming that ballots have been cast correctly," she explains.
A number of methods for adding voter verifiability to electronic machines have been suggested, and they all have one thing in common: paper. Chaum, for example, has demonstrated an ingenious two-part paper ballot, the top page of which is visible. Cryptographic coding ensures that while the two halves are assembled, the voter can see how the ballot was cast; once separated, the halves reveal nothing to third parties.
Simpler in conception is Mercuri¿s suggestion, which she has been promulgating since 1993. Electronic ballot boxes would be equipped with a glass screen and a printer. Each vote would be printed out on paper and the result dropped behind the glass screen for the voter to review before choosing to cast or void it. Such a system, she says, would reduce voter error and provide for a recount, if needed. Meanwhile the electronics could tabulate votes quickly, as our impatient society demands.
Mercuri¿s method is beginning to make some headway. California, for example, is considering mandating the creation of a contemporaneous paper record for each voter, and a bill in front of Congress would amend the Help America Vote Act to require a voter-verified permanent record. When it comes to votes, paper may be the wave of the future.