voting machines are supposed to restore integrity to the
electoral process—but critics say they merely open a new
backdoor to error and fraud
Nov. 7, 2002, CNN reported that electronic voting systems
in South Florida’s Broward County crashed, causing 103,222
ballots to be lost on election night. County election officials
said the missing votes did not affect the outcome of any
races, but one couldn’t help but remember that George W.
Bush was handed the 2002 presidency based on a slimmer margin.
last November, the electronic voting systems used in Tarrant
County, Texas (which encompasses Fort Worth, the state’s
sixth largest city), would not allow voters to register
ballots cast down straight Republican or Democratic party
lines. The glitch, which election officials blamed on human
error, wasn’t caught until Election Day, even though technicians
had tested the machines in October 2002. It delayed the
counting of 300,000 ballots for the governor’s race and
a U.S. Senate seat.
In Georgia, a state that employs 22,000 electronic voting
machines, incumbent Democratic Sen. Max Cleland lost a close
election to his Republican challenger, Rep. Saxby Chambliss,
despite polling information showing Cleland in the lead
heading into Election Day. Four days prior to Election Day
2002, a USA Today poll showed Cleland leading by
49 to 44 percent over Chambliss. The day after the election,
Cox News Service reported that Hotline, a political news
service, “recalled a series of polls Wednesday showing that
Chambliss had been ahead in none of them.”
Reports from various New Jersey newspapers stated that the
electronic voting machines in 30 of 46 voting districts
in Cherry Hill, N.J., malfunctioned in November 2002, locking
the lever to vote for Democratic mayoral candidate Bernie
Platt for up to four hours.
Electronic voting machines in Texas produced another oddity:
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, Rep. Carter Casteel and county Judge
Danny Scheel all won their respective elections in Comal
County by the total of 18,181 votes. “Isn’t that the weirdest
thing?” Comal County Clerk Joy Streater told the San
Antonio Express-News shortly after the election.
Are electronic voting machines getting a bad rap? Are those
opposed to computerized voting systems nothing but a lousy
bunch of Luddites with nothing better to do than claim the
sky is falling? Or are the above cases merely the tip of
the iceberg, portents of a coming wave of vote-counting
error and fraud as we enter the era of computerized voting?
Proponents of the machines don’t think so. They insist that
these incidents are isolated and can be attributed to human
error. They are quick to note the number of security steps
and certifications each machine is required to pass before
it can be used in an election. They claim it would be extremely
difficult for an individual to bypass these security measures
and actually rig an election. They call such a scenario
improbable—but not impossible.
For the last decade, critics of electronic voting machines
have been harping on issues of security and machine malfunction,
and proponents of computerized voting can’t seem to write
them off. Considering that the detractors are some of the
most respected names in computer science, it’s no wonder.
The 35 days from Nov. 7 to Dec. 12, 2000, will be remembered
as some the most regrettable in the history of our nation’s
electoral process. It was over those 35 days that the 43rd
president of the Unites States of America was ultimately
decided, not by the voters, but by the Supreme Court. Despite
cries of confusing ballots, misleading directions at polling
places and wrongly disenfranchised voters, the nation’s
highest court decided that the questionable ballots of nearly
200,000 Floridians would not be counted in an election that
was decided by far fewer votes.
Fearing that the integrity of our nation’s electoral process
was severely tarnished, Congress produced a panacea, the
Help America Vote Act—a far-reaching, multibillion-dollar
proposal to modernize and standardize election systems throughout
the 50 states. Congress hoped the legislation would ensure
that the ballot and polling-place confusion that tainted
the 43rd presidency would never happen again.
requires states to replace their old mechanical and punch-card
voting machines—devices long criticized for being improperly
equipped for persons living with disabilities—with electronic
voting machines. Just as word-processing software’s ease
of execution and versatility eclipsed the typewriter’s mere
functionality, so will electronic voting machine technology
do for the lever and punch-card machines of old, goes HAVA’s
But critics of the switch in technology say that these direct-recording
electronic voting machines, or DREs, are more prone to malfunction
and open to fraud than their predecessors. Critics paint
worst-case scenarios where the machines crash and lose thousands
of votes, or a rogue computer programmer installs an undetected
code into the machines that throws an election.
David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford
University, maintains Verifiedvoting.com, a Web site that
details the faults of electronic voting machines.
voting equipment is inherently subject to programming error,
equipment malfunction, and malicious tampering,” begins
an online petition on Dill’s site.
The petition has drawn 1,794 signatures in all, 992 of which
belonging to computer scientists from academia (Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University and
Princeton University, to name a few), and researchers from
the private sector (Microsoft, Adobe Systems and Sun Microsystems).
Representatives from research groups, law firms, and citizen-,
civil- and disabled-rights groups round out the list.
Rebecca Mercuri, one of the petition’s signatories and an
assistant professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College
has been one of the most consistent and prolific critics
of direct-recording electronic voting machines over the
past 10 years.
Mercuri advocates DREs that produce a verifiable paper audit
trail. After casting their ballot, voters would receive
an ATM-like receipt verifying their choices. The piece of
paper would then be deposited in a lockbox, and the votes
could be recounted in the event that a DRE loses its memory
or the results from an electronic machine are challenged.
we had a piece of paper that said this is who I voted for,
I see it and put it in the ballot box and that is what is
used to count the elections, that would be fine,” Mercuri
says. “But no, we’re just supposed to trust the machines.”
We shouldn’t trust the machines? Despite the millions of
dollars companies have spent researching and developing
software for these machines, they are still faulty? Mercuri
says that the best electronic voting machines are only as
good as the standard against which they are tested, and
the current standard used by the Federal Election Commission,
which certifies DREs, isn’t good enough.
According to Mercuri, a DRE’s software and codes are currently
tested against an obsolete, decade-old security criterion,
and the machines are tested only once with a hypothetical
code. Since new candidates, parties and races ensure that
a machine’s code is often rewritten for each election, Mercuri
sees plenty of opportunities for election fraud.
Under those standards, Mercuri says it wouldn’t be much
of a challenge for an ill-intentioned, modern-day programmer
to install a patch, or a rogue code, onto a DRE, altering
the outcome of an election one way or another.
a person writes computer code, it is written in a symbolic
notation that might even look like English—like, ‘If this
happens; then do this,’ ‘If this button is pressed; then
add this to the total,’” Mercuri says. “But then that English-like
code has to be transformed by another program into something
a computer can read, and in the translation process a permutation
can take place that adds something to the code that could
enable what they call a Trojan horse. This is not fiction;
this is fact and it is very easy to do.
the process of doing this transformation,” Mercuri continues,
“you can add something to the code that says, ‘If you press
this button three times; then increment this guy by 10 percent
and decrement this other guy by 10 percent.’ That is a very
simplistic example, but that’s the gist.”
To find such a directive, Mercuri says an auditor would
have to review not only the computer’s code, but the code
of the translating software, to ensure that everything is
working properly. Considering that such directives are quite
small, 200 characters or fewer, it would be virtually impossible
can look at the program code until you’re blue in the face,
but there is almost no way of knowing whether these things
have been added in the transfer process,” Mercuri says.
Proponents of electronic voting machines say Mercuri’s claims
sound too much like a conspiracy theory; that it would be
very difficult for even one of the machines to be tampered
with. But they stop short of saying it is impossible.
people that are not for electronic voting machines are the
theorists from the data-processing world, so they’re pretty
hard to argue with,” says Larry Tonelli, a salesman with
Sequoia Voting Systems, one of two manufacturers certified
to provide New York with electronic voting machine. “To
tamper with the machines is possible, but it would require
total collusion from so many people involved in the election
Jim Allen, who engineers voting machines for Sequoia, says
that critics like Mercuri have made a profession out of
discrediting his work, and he is none too happy.
tell you that they are the biggest bunch of bullshitters
out there,” Allen says. “All the years we’ve tried to keep
the voting machines sacrosanct, yet these people want to
discredit everything we’ve done. It is destroying the sanctity
But Mercuri says she is simply fulfilling her responsibility
as a computer scientist and relaying the facts.
of the papers in California said we are creating a UFO effect,
she says, “But these concerns are real. There are certain
scientific facts out there that you can’t avoid, and just
because someone is stating true scientific facts, they shouldn’t
be criticized for that. Unfortunately that has been the
concerns that smoke and mirrors are being used behind the
scenes to count votes, the machines themselves don’t really
look that evil. They’re pretty slick, actually.
recently took a tour of Harvard Custom Manufacturing (a
Sequoia manufacturing plant in Owego), spoke with Sequoia
engineers, and tested a few of the company’s voting machines.
Sequoia’s machine, the AVC Advantage, is one of two full-face,
electronic voting machines certified for use in New York,
the other being Electronic Systems & Software’s iVotronicLS.
Representatives from ES&S did not return calls for comment
for this story.
The Advantage has a toylike quality about it; the machine’s
burgundy-trimmed, navy-blue plastic casing resembles the
kind of durable material used to house children’s computer
equipment in museums and toy stores in the mall.
The machine stands at almost 6-and-a-half feet tall, and
the ballot faces the voter at a 45-degree angle. Unlike
the lever machines, the ballot face on the Advantage can
be lowered and adjusted to 90 degrees, ensuring wheelchair-bound
voters privacy in the booth. The Advantage ensures voter
privacy—no, not by force field—but by a wall formed by the
two plastic flaps used to cover the ballot face in storage,
and a plain cloth curtain.
The ballot itself would look very similar to the one already
in place in New York, and its size could be adjusted for
easier reading depending on the number of candidates in
any given election. The Advantage can be programmed to accommodate
up to 504 ballot positions, so the piece of paper the ballot
is printed on can be customized for each election—the fewer
the races, the larger the font for each candidate and race.
Voters would actually interact with the ballot by pressing
a touch pad, similar to those on cash registers in fast
food joints, over a candidate’s name. Voters would cast
a vote by pressing the name of a candidate, and then a little
green “X” would light up to show a voter his or her selection.
Unlike the lever machines, votes could be changed as often
as the voter would like, and write-ins can be typed into
a keypad at the bottom of the ballot. Voters would log their
selections by bopping the flashing red button to register
the votes. The Advantage emits a cell-phone-like ring, and
voilà, your vote has been cast, 21st-century style.
As HAVA requires of all new voting machines, the Advantage
also has a number of features to ensure access for physically
disabled and voters with English- language deficiencies.
The ballots in the machines are already written in English
and Spanish, and the machines can be programmed to read
ballots in Cantonese, Pakistani or Somali. Sequoia says
they are working on “sip and puff” technology, which would
allow quadriplegic voters to vote by sipping and puffing
a burst of air into a straw fitted to the voting machine.
But for all of the Advantage’s features to ensure its usability
for all persons living with disabilities, there was at least
one obvious bug upon inspection last week—the machine’s
audio component for visually impaired voters. A prerecorded
voice instructs the visually impaired voters to scroll through
the choices using the “green and yellow triangular buttons”
and make their selections by pressing the “large, circular,
Due to an antiquated statute in the state’s election law,
only two vendors are currently certified to provide New
York with its updated voting technology, Electronic Systems
& Software, based in Omaha, Neb., and Sequoia Voting
Systems, with headquarters in Oakland, Calif. Both companies
have received their share of bad press.
Machines built by ES&S are at the heart of one of the
better-known cases of an election falling under question
of fraud. It was on the Omaha-built machines in 1996 that
Chuck Hagel was overwhelmingly elected to the U.S. House
of Representatives, becoming the first Republican candidate
from Nebraska to do so in 24 years—even though press reports
state that Hagel was trailing in Election Day polls.
It gets more interesting: Hagel actually had a substantial
financial interest in the company on whose machines he was
elected, a matter he failed to disclose to the Federal Elections
Bev Harris, an independent investigative journalist who
maintains the Web site Blackboxvoting.com, has reported
on Hagel’s apparent conflict of interest as one of a number
of questionable cases involving electronic voting machines.
She has written a book on the matter under the same name
as her Web site, which is scheduled for publication later
Sequoia has its political ties as well. The company has
received a fair amount of criticism in New York for hiring
a lobbyist, which on the surface seems rather odd since
lobbying is a legal activity. But a closer look at how the
state has been preparing to implement HAVA’s reforms lends
some light to the matter.
Although the state has been preparing for HAVA for the past
two years, all of its major decisions have been made in
the last few months by the New York State Commission on
HAVA Implementation—a task force widely criticized for being
stacked with political appointments and lacking diverse
citizen representation. In fact, Lee Daghlian, spokesman
for the New York state Board of Elections, so much as admitted
that committees designed to reform elections law have been
politically stacked in the past, and the HAVA task force
was no different.
we had these discussions about the plans to implement the
Motor Voter law in the early ’90s, the conversation was
similar,” Daghlian told Metroland [Newsfront, June
was a Democratic governor at the time, so most of the department
heads that were on the task force were Democrats. So it
makes sense this time that [the majority of task force members]
were Republican because we have a Republican governor.”
Considering the task force’s admittedly Republican slant
and New York’s nonexistent regulations on lobbying for state
contracts, Sequoia’s selection of Jeff Buley—who serves
as a legal consultant for the state’s Republican Committee
and was counsel for Gov. George E. Pataki’s reelection bid
last year—as its chief lobbyist seems rather dubious.
Neal Rosenstein, government reform specialist with the New
York Public Interest Research Group, said he wouldn’t be
surprised if Sequoia landed a large share of the $140 million
New York state has to spend on voting machines, given the
work of the task force so far.
business as usual in Albany,” says NYPIRG’s Rosenstein.
“The decision should be made on the basis of who has the
best machine, not who has the most politically connected
Responding to criticisms that his company has hired a Republican-connected
lobbyist as it seeks its share of a lucrative state contract,
Sequoia’s Tonelli responds, “We hired Jeff O’Dwyer as a
Democratic lobbyist, too. But nobody seems to write about
the past few months, election officials and citizens groups
across the country have been forming committees and drafting
plans to ensure that their state complies with HAVA by Sept.
1. On that date, the beginning of the next federal fiscal
year, federal election officials will evaluate individual
states’ plans before doling out federal funding.
But HAVA doesn’t offer states much guidance on what has
fast become one of the election reforms’ most contentious
issues—the reliability of electronic voting machines. HAVA
simply requires states to update their technology and leaves
discretion on security issues up to the states. In New York,
the jury is still out on what should be done to ensure the
security and reliability of electronic voting machines.
Both the New York state Senate and Assembly each passed
its own legislation amending the state’s election laws and
allocating funds for HAVA compliance before the end of session,
but a compromise wasn’t reached. The Senate’s legislation
didn’t even address many of HAVA’s more complex issues,
like voting machines or a statewide voter- registration
The Assembly passed legislation sponsored by Keith Wright
(D-NYC) requiring new voting machines to produce a verifiable
paper audit trail, and for 2 percent of these receipts to
be checked against the electronic records as a safeguard.
NYPIRG’s Rosenstein, who represents the New York State Citizens
Coalition on HAVA Implementation, supports the Assembly
electronic technology can be safe and secure, and voter-verified
paper audit trails are the most obvious backup that you
can employ,” Rosenstein says. “It is easy and clear for
the voter to understand, and it is reassuring to the voter.”
But a draft of the state’s plan for HAVA compliance, written
by the state Board of Elections, doesn’t mention the need
for a verifiable paper trail. “You don’t get a piece of
paper out of the mechanical machine either,” says the Daghlian
from the state Board of Elections. The state Legislature
may address the issue when it reconvenes in the fall, Daghlian
says, but the Board of Elections is ready to move forward
Sequoia’s Tonelli says his company’s machines can easily
be retrofitted with printers to produce a verifiable paper
trail, but he doesn’t see a need for them. “I thought the
whole idea of this election reform was to get away from
paper to begin with,” he says.
Though Rosenstein says his group supports the idea of a
verifiable paper audit trail, he readily admits that it
is not a cure-all. Visually disabled voters would still
be shortchanged by election reform if they had to rely on
someone reading from a piece of paper that said who they
voted for. Unless voting machines were equipped with data-to-voice
technology, so they could hear verification of their vote,
visually disabled voters would lose the right to privacy
that is one of HAVA’s cornerstones.
Access issues aside, it doesn’t take Rosenstein too long
to think of other reasons why a paper trail may not be in
the best interests of the public.
these paper printers [for the audit trail] will be the worst
thing in the world,” Rosenstein says. “The paper could get
damp sitting in these warehouses, and it’ll jam in the printers
and create longer lines and cost more money, or after every
election people will want a recount: ‘Show me the paper,
show me the paper.’”
Rosenstein wonders what effect all the speculation about
the security of electronic voting machines will have on
voter confidence, one of the issues HAVA set out to address.
Whatever decision they may make, Rosenstein says that the
legislators, election officials and gadflies who influence
the process must know that the integrity of our nation’s
electoral process is at stake.
confidence in the integrity of the elections is probably
just as important as some of these fears and concerns about
people tampering with the systems,” Rosenstein says. “This
could lead to the public’s increased indifference about
elections, which may ultimately lead to a lower voter turnout.”