Electronic voting machines are placing our democracy at risk.” This dire warning on the eve of the election came not from MoveOn.org or Air America, but CNN anchor and lifelong Republican Lou Dobbs. Dobbs was hardly alone in sounding the alarm, as in Maryland both gubernatorial candidates urged voters to use absentee ballots rather than rely on the state’s Diebold voting machines, and nationwide, 66 percent of registered voters believed it to be likely that hackers would tamper with the vote count. While it is encouraging that last week’s election does not appear to have been marred by major allegations of electoral theft, the alarm is still ringing and must be addressed prior to 2008.
In the past six years, the use of electronic voting machines has tripled and is now used by nearly 40 percent of registered voters. Questions about these machines first surfaced after the 2002 Georgia elections in which Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes were upset by Republican challengers on Election Day, despite leading in the polls, and it was later discovered that Diebold had covertly implemented a program patch entitled “rob-georgia.zip” shortly before the election. These suspicions grew exponentially after the 2004 election in which exit polls “incorrectly” showed John Kerry winning the national vote and key states such as Nevada, Ohio, New Mexico and Iowa, but otherwise were “correct” in non-swing states and precincts without electronic voting.
What was particularly egregious was that Diebold’s CEO promised to deliver Ohio to President Bush and proved to be a man of his word since significant discrepancies between the official tally and exit polls favored Bush 90.9 percent of the time. Mistrust and concerns over electronic voting machines continued to escalate in this election cycle with the release of documentaries such as HBO’s “Hacking Democracy” and reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office U.S. Government Accountability Office and private groups which collectively found that current voting systems were plagued with over 120 security threats and failed to meet “even the most minimal security standards.”
A Johns Hopkins University study concluded that “we must carefully consider the risks inherent in electronic voting, as it places our very democracy at risk.” The absence of widespread fraud, however, does not mean that this election was a success for the new technology.
There were a number of reports of machines failing to register votes or flipping votes to a candidate not selected by the voter. For example, in the Florida race to fill Katherine Harris’ Congressional seat, there are calls for a revote after over 18,000 votes (or approximately 13 percent) went unrecorded in a race decided by 369 votes. In addition, across the nation, voters waited in line for hours because of machine failures, inexperienced poll workers and lack of voting machines. In Maryland, a lack of voting machines meant that Sharolyn Hyson had to wait over three hours, until after 11 p.m., to vote. The African American eloquently noted that while the wait was nothing compared to the sacrifices of her ancestors who “died for the right to vote … this is the 21st Century in the United States. We can do better.”
Ms. Hyson is absolutely right. Since the 2000 Florida fiasco there have been two major commissions on election reform – the National Commission on Election Reform (co-chaired by former Presidents Carter and Ford) and the Commission on Federal Election Reform (co-chaired by Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker) – which have provided detailed recommendations for reform. It is now time for action and the restoration of a Democratic Congress and the election of Debra Bowen (whom one blog labeled the “election integrity queen”) as Secretary of State in California increases the likelihood of significant voting reform. Congress must act quickly to restore confidence in our voting process, while Bowen should push to make California a model of electoral reform for other states and even Congress to follow.
The starting point, however, must be to address the vulnerability of electronic voting machines to attack or abuse since, as Tom Stoppard notes, “(i)t’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.” That is why it is appalling that Las Vegas’ slot machines are subject to greater scrutiny than most voting machines, as unlike most election regulators the Nevada Gaming Commission has the source code for any software used, performs spot inspections and requires background checks for all programmers.
It is not enough to ensure that the voting process is secure since, as the 2001 National Commission on Election Reform stressed, Americans “can and should expect their system to be a source of national pride and a model to all the world.” A voting system to be proud of is one where voting booths are allocated based on the number of registered voters in the region and not their ethnicity; where there are serious consequences for attempting to suppress the vote through intimidation or misinformation; and which is not tainted by the partisan ambitions of the election administrators. There is an old proverb “do not stand in a dangerous place trusting in miracles,” which reminds us that while we may have dodged a bullet on Election Day, this offers no guarantee for future elections. It is imperative that we address this continued threat since democracy is too precious for its preservation to depend on luck or miracles.