To paraphrase 15th Century Dutch Philosopher Erasmus’ well-known characterization of women -- "technology, can't live with it, can't live without it." Ever since the debacle that was the vote counting in Florida a dozen years ago, virtually every jurisdiction in the country has moved away from some form of manual voting machine to embrace the technology of electronic voting ("e-voting" for short).
Yet, as states and local elections offices have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to institute e-voting, little attention has been paid the potential dangers inherent in this form of vote counting. Indeed, even as many Republican voters and legislators decry the possibility of voting abuse posed by suspected voter fraud and have ousted for voter ID mandates, the specter of lost votes posed by e-voting continues to go largely unnoticed or deliberately ignored.
However, as noted in a recent editorial in USA Today by Philip Meyer, professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina, electronic voting machines have the very real “potential to steal your vote.” The problem identified by Meyer is magnified this election cycle, given the high likelihood of another exceptionally tight presidential race.
As reflected in many recent polls, votes in a handful of key states, including Ohio, Florida and Virginia are poised to decide the contest between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Yet, these states and others remain ill-prepared to deal with potential problems because they lack sufficient auditing procedures to ensure the integrity of their e-voting systems.
Many pundits and voting officials tend to dismiss such concerns, but the fact remains there have been demonstrated errors in the recent past. Perhaps the most well-known example, explains Philip Meyer, occurred in Volusia County, Florida when a “corrupted memory card subtracted 16,000 votes from Al Gore’s count in 2000.”
While procedures have improved in the last 12 years and many states have taken some steps to ensure the integrity of their elections, there remain instances where votes are lost and cannot be recovered, or where machines simply fail. Meyer notes more recent examples, such as electronic voting machines failing in 80% of precincts in a South Carolina county during the 2008 GOP presidential primary, and a software glitch in a Florida county giving votes in the wrong race in a municipal election. Three years ago in a local election in South Dakota, a software malfunction nearly doubled the number of votes actually cast, according to a USA Today study.
It is not just software glitches and corrupted memory cards that should be on the minds of election officials. Hackers pose another very real problem whereby an election could be tilted towards a favored candidate. At the national level, the last few years have demonstrated that no government, including our own, is safe from the threat posed by hackers. Between late 2010 and early 2011, for example, WikiLeaks, an international organization led by Julian Assange, obtained and released publicly thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables and intelligence files obtained from the State Department and U.S. embassies.
Even more recently, hackers were able to hack and obtain five million e-mails from Stratfor, a private intelligence firm based in Texas. These e-mails were released by WikiLeaks earlier this year in what was a major embarrassment for a company that deals with sensitive information.
Organizations worried about the potential for e-voting problems have long-advocated for audit procedures by which votes cast by e-voting machines could be verified through audit trails. But in many states, budget cutbacks and blind reliance on digital technology have stopped legislators and elections officials from moving forward with remedial measures.
The election between President Obama and Romney already is shaping up to be a hard-fought contest that will most assuredly be extremely close, coming down to a handful of states. As campaigns and groups supporting particular candidates push to “get out the vote” in battleground states, it is imperative that officials work diligently to ensure the integrity of the election. Yet, without demands from political party officials and voters, little if any remedial action is likely to be taken.
It is high time watchdog groups shift focus from concern over fraudulent voters infecting the integrity of our voting process, to the very real danger of abuse inherent in un-verifiable e-voting systems. We need to get a handle on problems posed by electronic voting before we enter the next great frontier of technology – online voting; a process already permitted to an extent in some two dozen states. Widespread use of online voting will create the potential for abuse that will make the problems inherent in e-voting pale in comparison.