Better voting machines
Evans’ group to make recommendations to legislators Nov. 21
Photo by Dan Addison
By Charlotte Crystal
After the debacle of the hanging chads in the contested 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the “Help America Vote Act of 2002” to reform the voting process. Of particular concern were voting systems and voter access.
Since then, nearly every state has passed or is considering legislation to improve its voting process by replacing outdated equipment and improving administrative procedures. However, the federal legislation — dubbed HAVA — set a Jan. 1, 2006 deadline for purchases under the act and many jurisdictions are spending the money unwisely so they don’t “lose” it, said David Evans, assistant professor of computer science at U.Va.
Many jurisdictions have already purchased Direct Recording Electronic Voting machines (DREs), which use a touch screen, a wheel, or a mouse, as a voting device to replace older equipment, Evans said.
“But anyone who works in the software industry or in computer security knows that any complex software has flaws, which means that it can be broken,” he said.
In fact, some of the top-selling voting machines have simple, easy-to-exploit flaws. “In some cases, the master key was the same in every machine, and it was an obvious key, not a random key,” he said. “Anyone who knew about computer security [and cared about the integrity of the nation’s elections] would have been in shock.”
Above all, the DREs record votes electronically without leaving a paper trail, which means that the voting results are vulnerable to manipulation.
“For example, if a group of programmers at Microsoft didn’t like Republicans, they might be able to design the underlying Windows CE software so that the operating system would swap 1 percent of the votes for Republican candidates to other candidates,” Evans said. “The software-based voting machines are different from the older, mechanical machines because on the older machines, you can see what’s not working. With software, you can’t see what’s not working.”
In fact, easily disguised tinkering with the software is a more likely threat than some of the nightmare scenarios envisioned by conspiracy theorists, Evans believes. Terrorists stealing an election or corrupt politicians stuffing the electronic ballot boxes are less likely to occur than other, more mundane problems that could affect the outcome of an election: unintentional software glitches, engineering mistakes, coding errors or programming miscalculations. Many of these problems have been seen in voting machines used in real elections, such as machines used in Florida that started counting backward after reaching 32,000 votes, he said.
For the past six months, Evans has served on a state legislative subcommittee — the Joint Subcommittee to Study the Certification Process for Voting Equipment and Matters Related to the Performance and Proper Deployment of Voting Equipment — which has reviewed available voting equipment. U.Va. alumna and State Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, R-Vienna, (B.A., mathematics, 1978), is the vice chairman of the subcommittee, which will present its report publicly at its last scheduled meeting in Richmond on Nov. 21.
Virginia has lagged behind other states in dealing with this issue, which has spawned a national “Verified Voting” movement, Evans said. In some states, voting jurisdictions have had to replace new machines after election officials determined that the machines were unreliable. After Evans’ subcommittee presents its recommendations later this month, Virginia may establish guidelines for future voting equipment purchases, and for certifying — or decertifying — existing machines, he said.
Evans believes the best option among the machines the subcommittee examined in preparing its report is one that separates the process of marking the ballot from the process of recording the vote.
Voters would mark paper ballots and run them through an optical scanner in the voting machines. The interactive machines would “read” the ballots and respond with a message: “It looks like you’re voting for A. Is this correct?” If so, the voters would insert their paper ballots into the machines and their votes would be recorded. Not only does this system permit voters to verify that their votes are correct while they are voting, but it also preserves the paper ballots for a recount, if needed.
“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Evans said. “Everyone wants to make sure that our elections are accurate and trustworthy.”
For more information about the Help America Vote Act of 2002, visit the Web site of the Federal Election Commission at: http://www.fec.gov/hava/hava.htm.