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Business Week

The Odd Conflict over E-voting

Election Officials want a digital solution to avoid Florida-style fiascos, while computer experts say only paper will work

December 12, 2003
By Stephen H. Wildstrom, Edited by Beth Belton

The role of technology in U.S. elections has become the center of a curious fight in which the forces aren't lining up at all the way you might think. On one side, state and local elections officials, often thought to be technological troglodytes, are the most enthusiastic fans of the latest in computerized voting systems. On the other is a group of computer scientists and other academics who are deeply suspicious of the technology and believe the best answer is, of all things, paper ballots.

This split was on display Dec. 10-11 at a conference called "Building Trust and Confidence in Voting Systems" at the National Institute of Standards & Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. And the division isn't as improbable as it seems at first glance.

The fundamental issue is that unlike paper ballots or even the much-maligned punch cards, voters see no physical record of their ballot with what are called direct-recording electronic systems. And the counting of the votes takes place inside a black box, with no physical records to serve as a backup.

QUICK FIX. Computer-security experts base their analysis on what can go wrong if you assume the worst case. "The reality is that systems can and do fail," Rebecca Mercuri of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government told the conference, reciting a litany of odd goings-on with electronic voting systems.

"When we find problems with elections, we jump for the quick technical fix," said Douglas Jones of the University of Iowa. "We have to defend against the machine itself." Aviel Rubin of Johns Hopkins painted a bleak picture, saying, "Unintended security flaws [in voting systems] are unavoidable, while intentional flaws are undetectable."

Elections officials live in a very difficult world. They have to do the best they can with inadequate budgets and undertrained staffs. ...


The solution researchers generally favor is called a voter-verified ballot, which California plans to require starting in 2006. In the system many support, after voting with touch-screen machines, voters would receive a printed record of their ballot, which they would deposit in a ballot box. These would either be counted as the "real" ballots, or at least would be available as a backup for a manual recount.


In the end, election officials will likely prevail over the computer experts because electronic systems, as simple as possible, are the only way they can meet all the mandates and still live within their budgets. They know it won't be perfect, but as Davidson put it, "there is no nonproblem system."