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Where to Now for E-Voting?

Where to Now for E-Voting?

Remember the furore over the 2000 US Presidential election, with its hanging chads, staged protests of angry Republicans on courthouse doorsteps, complaints of disenfranchisement by black voters and controversial Supreme Court rulings? The outcome was so chaotic millions of American voters still talk of their President as “the unelected fraud,” even after his resounding victory in the mid-term elections of 2002.

Amongst other problems, The CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project estimated some four to six million votes were lost in 2000 due to ballot, equipment, registration or polling-place problems. In response, Americans clamoured for new voting technology to replace the ageing machines peppering US polling booths across the nation.

The Federal Government moved swiftly to revamp the country's largely paper-based and mechanical voting systems, allocating more than $1 billion to the purchase of electronic voting systems, including optical scanners and touch-screen machines.

Australians too have shown a preference for electronic voting over recent times. A survey of 1000 voters commissioned by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) and conducted in the three days following the Cunningham by-election shows 60 per cent would like to be able to vote over the Internet from any location either before or on polling day; with 55 per cent supporting the notion of using a computer to vote in a polling booth on polling day.

The idea of electronic voting has also won sympathy from the Australian Institute of Criminology. Dr Russell Smith, deputy director of research, wrote a report last year entitled: “Electronic Voting: Benefits and Risks,” which predicted Australia would see national electronic voting taking off in the next five years, although it predicted concerns over secrecy and undue influence would delay full-blown home voting for some time longer.

But for now, at least, it remains extremely uncertain that IT by itself can save either the day or democracy.

A recent inspector general’s report has characterised Miami-Dade County officials who oversaw a $25 million deal to buy new voting machines as “easy marks” after the September 10, 2002, mid-term election — a national black eye for Miami-Dade — was plagued with problems caused in part by the lengthy start-up time for the machines.

The report found the company that sold Miami-Dade the touch-screen voting machines used in the disastrous 2002 primaries misled county officials about the equipment and delivered goods that were ''hardly state-of-the-art technology,'' according to an inspector general's report obtained on May 7 by The Miami Herald.

A week ago, the company being paid millions of dollars to run Miami-Dade's high-tech voting machines failed to win state approval for its plan to fix the problems that led, in part, to last year's bungled primary elections.

The Miami Herald reports state officials withheld their blessing last week after finding flaws in a new computer program designed by Election Systems & Software to make booting up the iVotronic machines quicker and easier.

The flaws, according to a letter from the state Division of Elections, were ''of sufficient gravity'' and far enough out of compliance with state standards that the new software could not be approved.

And Miami-Dade is far from alone, with polling-place problems manifesting in numbers of other of the 200-plus counties nationwide which had new, electronic machines in place by 2002. For instance in Florida's Broward County, improperly loaded software and incorrect ballots caused problems with 40 to 50 machines. Poorly programmed or calibrated machines in Georgia incorrectly displayed some ballots, while others froze up. And software glitches in 30 Maryland voting precincts caused machines to identify all voters as Democrats. As one US CIO put it: “It wasn't exactly the fall of 2000 all over again — most problems were quickly remedied. But then again, it wasn't exactly the smooth, IT-facilitated voting future that under-the-gun election officials may have hoped for either.”

Nonetheless, it looks like more new machines are on the way in the US. On October 4, a joint House-Senate committee agreed on a sweeping election reform bill that allocates $US3.9 billion over the next three years to help states buy new equipment, train poll workers and create computerised statewide lists of registered voters.

At least there are some positive signs for the future. Wired Magazine reported last week that voting machines that print individual ballots are at last moving a step closer to widespread availability.

In response to concerns raised by election officials and security-minded techies, one of the largest makers of touch-screen voting machines has introduced a prototype capable of producing paper ballots. Its one election accessory many computer scientists have clamoured for, and it may move computerised voting systems electors can trust a little bit closer to reality.

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