Election Reform Stumbles on HAVA Hangups

By Jed Herrington, Newsdesk.org

As the first elections of 2006 approach, states are rushing to satisfy the technology upgrades mandated by the Help America Vote Act.

But controversial new machines have put the brakes on compliance for some counties, jeopardizing their chunk of more than $3 billion allocated by the law.

Passed in response to “hanging chads” and other problems that plagued the 2000 elections, HAVA requires states to abandon punch-card and lever voting systems and improve accessibility to disabled voters by the first federal election of 2006.

Overall compliance, however, is still incomplete.

According to a report (PDF) this month by Election Data Services, 69 million voters will vote on optical scan ballots, while another 66 million will use electronic equipment — mainly direct recording electronic machines, also known as touch screens.

Meanwhile, approximately 22.5 million voters are still expected to cast ballots on either punch cards or lever machines.

Although most new machines meet HAVA’s handicap accessibility standards, the use of computer software to record and tabulate votes has left many feeling insecure about the process.

Black Box Voting, a self-described watchdog group that criticizes electronic voting, released a report yesterday claiming that Florida’s 2004 presidential election results were marred by more than 100,000 mechanical glitches, computer malfunctions and even deliberate tampering.

Election officials and voting-machine manufacturers disputed the report, but such issues have long been a concern, and similar problems have been alleged in other states.

In testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science months before HAVA’s conception, Dr. Rebecca Mercuri, president of Notable Software, Inc., said electronic voting is vulnerable to tampering.

“Any programmer can write code that displays one thing on a screen, records something else, and prints yet another result,” she said. “Cryptographic systems, even strong ones, can be cracked or hacked, thus leaving the ballot contents (and possibly also the identity of the voter) open to perusal.”

In Virginia last November, WDBJ-7 reported on complaints from citizens in Roanoke County whose touch-screen votes for a Democratic candidate allegedly registered as a vote for his Republican opposition.

In Ohio, on the same day, certain voters received incorrect electronic ballots and machines broke down, prompting election officials in Lucas County to hand out paper ballots.

The hotly contested 2004 presidential election saw disputes in New Mexico — where some voters claimed that they pressed the screen for John Kerry and got a check mark for George W. Bush — and Ohio, where voting machines gave Bush extra votes in more than one county.

Some reformists feel a paper trail could rectify the problem, but many new machines don’t provide one.

Congress introduced amendments to HAVA early last year, such as HR 278 and S330/HR 704, that would have required verifiable hardcopies of ballots, but none were signed into law.

New York, California, Connecticut and others states have passed similar statutes requiring new voting machines to provide verifiable records of cast ballots — in some cases stalling HAVA compliance.

The lack of a paper trail and hacker vulnerability is compounded by partisan politics.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, Democrats in Ohio say Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell was playing politics by casting tie-breaking votes favoring optical-scan machines in one county and touch-screen machines in another.

Blackwell’s opponents said the votes were contradictory, and in both cases backed the preference of Republicans on local election boards.

In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Allegheny County officials are debating a proposed $11.9 million purchase of touch-screen machines from the Diebold corporation — the only company offering to deliver by the county’s May 16 primary — due to a former Diebold CEO’s controversial ties to the Republican Party.

The county could lose $12 million from the federal government to purchase the technology if it doesn’t decide soon.

Officials in Leon County, Fla., recently decided to scrap their investment with Diebold completely due to questions of handicap accessibility, security and accuracy.

Some believe the company itself isn’t the problem.

Speaking to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David L. Dill, a Stanford University computer science professor and founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, said that “Diebold is no worse than any of the others. I would be equally disappointed if Allegheny County and other counties bought another type of touch-screen.”

Concerns about electronic voting machines are compounded by some poll workers’ lack of familiarity with the new devices.

Four counties in Pennsylvania used Diebold’s AccuVote-TSX in the March 2004 primaries, with 500 of 1,700 polling places failing to open on time because of workers who encountered problems operating the system.

As if scurrying to learn new technological skills wasn’t enough for poll workers, some states are passing more reform laws that might lengthen the wait-time for voters.

Five states, including Ohio and Georgia, now require voters to bring identification for poll workers to check. Some worry that taking the time to scrutinize IDs will slow polling and prove an obstacle for poorer citizens who won’t be able to produce acceptable documents.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, a Utah election reform package that would open polls up to two weeks early was shot down by legislators concerned with increased campaign expenses for candidates.

Utah county election clerks backed the bill, saying it would give them more time to prepare for the debut of new voting machines. Proponents also said the legislation would make voting more convenient for citizens with difficult work schedules.

Such an innovation might be welcome in Ohio, where a shortage of voting machines disenfranchised mostly African-American voters in the 2004 presidential race.

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“The Help America Vote Act of 2002”
U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division

“Bush Signs Help America Vote Act”
U.S. Department of State, International Information Program, October 29, 2002

“69 Million Voters Will Use Optical Scan Ballots in 2006” (PDF)
Election Data Services, February 6, 2006

“Watchdog Group Questions 2004 Fla. Vote”
Associated Press, February 23, 2006

“Voters report problems with voting machines in Roanoke Co.”
WDBJ-7, November 8, 2005

“Voters give mixed reviews to new touch-screen machines”
Toledo Blade, November 8, 2005

“Some Early Voters Say Machines Mark Incorrect Choices”
Albuquerque Journal, October 22, 2004

“Machine glitch gave Bush extra Ohio votes”
U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division

“Voter-verified paper audit trail legislation and information”

“Voting machines raise ire / Democrats say Blackwell selections strictly political”
Akron Beacon Journal, January 28, 2006

“Diebold Corporation Home Page”

“Machine Politics in the Digital Age”
New York Times, November 9, 2003

“Voting machine firm’s past questioned / County considers Diebold because it promises timely delivery”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 5, 2006

“Extended time to vote gets the boot”
Salt Lake Tribune, February 15, 2006

“Taft signs voter ID, other election changes into law”
Associated Press, February 23, 2006

“ID law one of the toughest”
Associated Press, January 31, 2006

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