University expert casts doubt on new voting machines

Professor says systems have too many flaws.

By: Jennifer Potash
   Billed as the best way to eliminate voting errors, electronic voting machines may actually cause more problems, a computer science expert said Saturday at the Princeton Public Library.
   Edward Felten, professor of computer science at Princeton University and the author or co-author of many works on computer security, technology law and Internet software, spoke as part of the New Jersey libraries’ "September Project," which encourages a dialogue on democracy and civil engagement.
   Professor Felten said electronic voting holds promise but currently has too many flaws, like not counting votes properly or offering little protection from hackers.
   On Nov. 2, millions of Americans, including many Mercer County residents, will use the new electronic voting machines for the first time. The drive to switch to electronic voting machines followed in the wake of the contested 2000 presidential election results in Florida.
   But the Florida fiasco was not a rare event, Professor Felten said. It was, in fact, a common occurrence. The difference in 2000 was the very close race, where small changes in the number of votes cast had a major effect on the outcome, he said.
   With the outrage of disenfranchised voters a fresh memory, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which directed federal funds to help states buy electronic voting machines to replace pull-switch machines and other mid-20th century voting technologies.
   But the drive to adopt electronic machines for voting is the result of confusion over how to make improvements following the 2000 election debacle, Professor Felten claimed.
   "We think the goal is to detect no error, but the goal is to have no errors or at least to have as few as you can and fix the ones you do detect," he said.
   The current electronic voting machines, which don’t leave a verifiable record of votes, may not indicate a problem unless a voter notices one, Professor Felten said.
   And several key problems have emerged with respect to the various electronic voting machines, he added.
   The Mercer County electronic voting machines, for example, use touch-screen technology to allow voters to cast ballots, and voters tend to assume that upon touching the screen their vote is not just cast, it is also recorded.
   That is an overly optimistic assumption, Professor Felten said.
   "Once you cast your vote, the machine makes a reassuring beeping noise and your vote is recorded — or you hope your vote is recorded," he quipped.
   Another concern is the so-called "brain" of the machine — a flimsy black box at the back where the hardware and software are stored, Professor Felten said. Citing trade secrets, the makers of voting machines have not allowed public inspections of either the software or hardware behind the technology, he said.
   Other problems include the lack of a paper trail to verify votes, software problems that could result in machines losing all the data or glitches that cast a vote for a candidate other than the one selected, Professor Felten said.
   With secure computing mechanisms, like ATMs, prevalent in society, one might think that voting machines could operate on a similar technology. But the comparison does not work because of the secret ballot, Professor Felten said.
   "With voting, you don’t walk out with a receipt and there is no printout at the end of the month from City Hall," said Professor Felten. "So the safeguard from ATMs isn’t there and you can’t rely on people to check different records against each other."
   Possible fixes for electronic voting include permitting public inspection of the machines’ hardware and software and conducting random audits and recovery of the voting data, he said.
   U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12) is the sponsor of legislation pending in Congress that has garnered over 100 co-sponsors requiring a paper trail for electronic voting machines. But the bill is stalled in committee and unlikely to be put to a vote this year, Professor Felten said.