Voting Machine Mess Can’t Just Be Fixed by Congressional Bills

Posted November 21, 2007 at 2:40pm

One of the issues left hanging as Congress is off on recess is the Holt bill to require voter-verifiable paper trails on all voting machines. Despite a robust number of co-sponsors, the bill remains mired in controversy, in part because of the opposition of sizable numbers of election officials who, after having sunk a bundle of money into touch-screen machines after the passage of the Help America Vote Act, are not inclined to change (and are also worried about deadlines and technical glitches).

[IMGCAP(1)]The drive to create a paper trail has come about because of the widespread public and expert unease with existing electronic machines. It should make Congress think more broadly about why these machines have bred such unhappiness and distrust.

Tens of millions of Americans every day use ATMs for financial transactions, opening up their assets to potential fraud and abuse without any question or trepidation. Once or twice a year, tens of millions of Americans use touch-screen machines that are close cousins of ATMs to vote — but these machines are under serious siege, with public interest groups, lawmakers, prominent computer scientists and many election officials questioning their accuracy, security and legitimacy.

Why the difference? The basic answer is in the different markets. ATMs are very costly machines, required to provide the combination of convenience of use, reliability of service and ironclad security guarantees. Banks and other financial institutions are willing to lay out the money because they save by eliminating layers of tellers and other personnel, and because they need ATMs to compete in the marketplace. There are enough machines, and enough turnover in them, to create real incentives for top-flight companies to improve them and hone the technology on a regular basis.

None of those conditions applies to elections and voting machines. The voting machines are costly, but each is only a tiny fraction of the cost of an ATM. Local and state governments have no real incentive to lay out a fortune for a bevy of machines that, unlike ATMs, which are used every day, are only used once or twice a year. It is in some ways the same dynamic as cities like Washington, D.C., that have no incentive to stockpile expensive trucks and plows for snow removal when the snow may occur once or twice a winter; better and more cost-effective to tolerate the infrequent if intense howls of outrage from citizens when their streets aren’t plowed for days.

Some of the same companies that make ATMs, like Diebold, rushed into the voting machine market. But they quickly found that the marketplace was much different. The voting machine market is a limited one; once jurisdictions buy machines, they have little incentive (and usually even less financial wherewithal) to replace them on a regular basis, the way most of us regularly replace our computers or cell phones.

Research and development just does not pay off in the voting tech world the way it can and does in other tech fields. Neither is there much money in service and maintenance; while voting jurisdictions report regularly that 10 percent or more of their touch-screens are not working, they do not require or demand frequent, expensive service calls. The vendors in the system, from Diebold to Sequoia to ES&S, have reacted to every criticism from computer scientists, lawmakers and others by stonewalling and dissembling, not because they are evil but because any hassles affect a bottom line that is enhanced only by selling machines and moving on.

For the political system, the problems with these and other voting machines are deep. Congress has been struggling since 2000 to fix, and refix, them. The Holt bill will reduce some of the potential for disaster in coming elections. But it is no panacea.

The genesis of the Holt bill, ironically, was the previous federal effort at election reform. Like many reforms, it was focused on erasing the last set of problems more than on anticipating the unintended consequences of its actions. HAVA’s centerpiece was to direct a stream of federal funds to jawbone local voting jurisdictions to abandon paper ballots and turn to the next new technology, touch-screen voting machines.

HAVA worked — in the sense that jurisdictions all over the country grabbed the money and ran headlong into the touch-screen age. After two national elections under reform, along with many more state and local ones, it is now clear that the reform-driven switch to touch-screens has created its own set of massive problems. Computer scientists at Johns Hopkins, Princeton, MIT, Cal Tech, Carnegie Mellon and other places have pointed out that many versions of the machines are readily compromised and hackable. Just last week, a team of experts from the University of California at Davis checked three separate systems used widely in California and found them all easily manipulated to flip votes and change results.

No voting machine is perfect. The ages-old lever machines, like the more recent punch-cards, have their own problems, as do the optical-scan ballots, the best of the options currently available, but that can create problems of voters failing to vote for some offices, voting more than once for others, or mismarking ballots. But it is possible to create a much better option, one that includes the ease of use of a touch-screen, with its ability to prevent undervotes, overvotes and other voter errors, and the reliability and safety of an optical-scan ballot filled out impeccably and available for the voter to check directly, and then have tallied and available for recounts or other controversies.

There is one such machine on the market — the AutoMark, by ES&S — that melds the touch-screen and optical-scan technologies. But it is very expensive, awkward to use, and still prone to errors and problems. With some work, it might provide the kind of balance the election system needs. But the manufacturer, like all vendors of voting machines, has little incentive to do so. Could the federal government fill the void? Sure — but given the fiscal dynamic in Washington, it will not do so.

What to do? Frankly, we can’t count on Congress to solve the problems, at least in the foreseeable future. We need a patriotic intervention by Steve Jobs and his talented team at Apple, the geniuses who created intuitive, user-friendly, reliable and elegant successes like the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone, or by Eric Schmidt and his brilliant team at Google.

Voting machine technology is not inherently intricate or technologically difficult. For a relatively small investment, Apple or Google could certainly create a voting machine that would be reasonable in price, easy to use, able to handle the long and often complicated ballots, easy to keep from hacking, and able to produce a clean paper ballot to be optically scanned, counted and preserved. If Apple or Google — or both — stepped up to the plate to give us the iVote or Voogle, they could save the credibility of American democracy.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.