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Electronic Voting Switch Threatens Mass Confusion

The Financial Times

 

Monday 01 May 2006

 

The last three election cycles in the US have been marked by controversy not only about candidates, but also about the fairness and accuracy of the voting process. And as voters head to the polls today for primaries in some jurisdictions, the coming cycle promises more of the same.

 

With about 8,000 separate election authorities managing approximately 175,000 polling places and perhaps as many as 150,000 different ballot forms that include choices for everyone from senator to dogcatcher, American elections are complex even when all goes well. But this cycle sees many states and smaller jurisdictions making last-minute efforts to switch to electronic voting, and early signs of trouble are appearing.

 

In California, the League of Women Voters has protested against a new, computerised statewide election registry that the group says is improperly rejecting registered voters, while county clerks in several Indiana jurisdictions complained that the electronic ballots programmed by the vendors of their electronic voting machines had been delivered late, were incorrect and poorly proofread.

 

The clerk for Marion County - the state's most populous - said that, so far, nine rounds of "fixes" had been required; she was unsure whether the primary vote today could be held without problems, according to The Indianapolis Star.

 

The scramble to convert to electronic voting has spurred disputes with vendors of the new machines. Last month, Oregon filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Election Systems & Software, alleging that the company reneged on a commitment to supply the state with electronic voting machines suitable for handicapped people for its May 16 primary.

 

In Florida, ground zero for election disasters in 2000, the election supervisor for Leon County allowed anti-electronic voting activists to try breaching security in the county's optical scan voting system, prompting the big three electronic voting systems companies - Diebold, Election Systems & Services, and Sequoia - to refuse to sell the county new machines. The Florida secretary of state has since opened an anti-trust investigation.

 

After the 2000 presidential election made "hanging chad" a sure laugh line for television comics, Congress passed the "Help America Vote Act", or Hava.

 

The law promised states funding to replace old voting technology with computerised systems.

 

The new systems fall into two categories - optical scan systems, in which voters mark paper ballots that are read by computer scanners, and direct recording electronic (DRE) systems in which voters touch computer screens or push buttons to mark their ballots.

 

But delays in setting standards, insufficient funding for Hava, and lack of technical expertise among the nation's election administrators have election experts predicting the 2006 election will not run smoothly.

 

Last September, the US Government Accountability Office issued a report with a litany of potential flaws in the reliability and security of electronic voting and warned that steps needed to ensure voter confidence in the integrity of the vote were unlikely to be in place in time for the 2006 election.

 

A principal author of the report, analyst David Powner, said in an interview that since last autumn, nothing had happened to change the report's conclusions.

 

One problem is that many of the new voting machines that will be deployed are arriving from offshore manufacturing sites - mainly China - and are being rushed into service without adequate quality controls, says Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a voting consultancy firm.

 

In some cases, election officials are "getting equipment three weeks before the election".

 

"We're all behind the eight ball," says Mr Brace.

 

"There are going to be enough problem areas that the issue of voting will be front and centre on everybody's plate."

 

Texans who want to vote early in elections set for May 12 may be voting on paper ballots because Election Systems & Software, one of the big e-voting machine vendors, is late in providing computer coding and electronic ballots for some of the 140 counties that use the company's machines. The company's president went to the state last week to mollify irritated election officials.

 

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2006.