Paper Trail

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-08-30 Print this article Print

Activists are pushing voters to use absentee ballots in the face of electronic voting machine mishaps. But paper can be hacked, too.

Fearful that computerized balloting systems will eat their votes in November, many citizens are seeking the safeguard of a traditional technology that is thousands of years old: Paper.

The catch? Paper may not be any more foolproof.

"If you were a crook who wanted to cook an election, you'd probably attack it through the absentee ballot system," says University of Iowa computer science professor Doug Jones, who has studied the problems of ensuring election integrity. "There is real vulnerability there, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to exploit it."

Activist groups such as Verified Voting, MoveOn and TrueMajority are crying out for a "voter verified paper audit trail" as a backup in areas where touch screen voting machines are used.

If they can't get that, many of their supporters are determined to vote absentee instead. In Palm Beach County, Fla., home of the 2000 presidential election's infamous "butterfly ballot," voter requests for absentee ballots were running about three times higher than normal leading up to an August primary. In a state where George W. Bush's 537-vote victory over Al Gore in 2000 magnified every real or imagined voting irregularity, the volume of absentee votes is likely to swell this year.

Florida's voting problems in 2000 largely revolved around a type of paper ballot, the punch card. The use of punch cards was subsequently banned in Florida, and 15 Florida counties adopted touch screen voting machines. Others picked optical scan systems, where voters color in circles on a paper card. Touch screen devices seemed as though they would eliminate a lot of errors because they allow voters to review their choices on a confirmation screen before casting their ballot. But in 2002, Florida was back in the news because of problems with malfunctioning or improperly operated electronic voting devices.

Suddenly, voters nationwide started wondering whether the cure was worse than the disease, as more electronic voting mishaps cropped up across America.

Machine interfaces were criticized as difficult and confusing. Johns Hopkins University researchers poked holes in the information security of Maryland's vote-counting networks. Balloting machine manufacturer Diebold inspired particular paranoia among Democrats following reports that CEO Walden O'Dell was active in President Bush's reelection campaign. And there was no assurance that votes taken electronically would be taken correctly, or that results could not be manipulated by rogue programmers or hackers.

But is voting absentee really better?

In Florida particularly, there's a long history of absentee votes being discarded or manipulated. Hacking the absentee vote can be decidedly low-tech. [ital]The Miami Herald[end] won a Pulitzer Prize for showing how fraudulent absentee votes swung a 1997 mayoral election in Miami. In one of the most colorful scams, campaign workers armed with boxes of absentee ballots paid homeless citizens $10 a vote to support their candidate.

In that case, an examination of witness signatures uncovered the fraud. Now, Florida has eliminated the requirement for a witness signature.

On the plus side, Florida law now makes it easier than ever for honest voters to cast absentee ballots.

Organizations in other states, such as the Campaign for Verifiable Voting in Maryland, have recommended voting absentee as a way citizens can make sure their votes count. "This is definitely the best way to go," suggests the TrueMajority Web site. "Once you've mailed in your ballot, you'll know you've voted no matter what happens on Election Day." But that assumption could be mistaken.

"Absentee voting puts the entire burden of getting the ballot in correct form on the voter," Jones says. A voter who does everything right can be reasonably sure his vote will be counted, but an easily confused elderly voter might be better off using a touch screen machine and asking for help from poll workers, he says.

Some of the ways the absentee vote system can break down:

  • Ballots can be lost or damaged in the mail.

  • Ballots can be ignored. In Florida's Broward County, investigators who had heard stories of widespread negligence in the elections office found 268 uncounted absentee ballots from a September 2002 primary in the back of a file drawer.

  • In Florida and most other places, absentee ballots are machine-readable optical scan ballots. Stray marks, food stains, odd colored inks or other problems can prevent ballots from being read properly by the automated system.

  • When ballots require manual interpretation, that "opens the door to subjective judgment, and canvassing boards have been known to be biased," Jones says.

  • Absentee voters miss out on the chance to correct errors such as voting for two competing candidates. When optical scan machines are used at the polling place, such problems can be detected, allowing the voter to complete a new ballot.

    While the computerization of vote counting isn't really new, having voters enter their choices directly into a computer is relatively novel. After a punch card or optical scan ballot is read into a computer, the paper record remains to be used in the event of a recount. But most of the touch screen systems currently deployed print only summary vote totals, not a record of each vote as it is cast.

    Recently, states such as California have banned new purchases of touch screen machines that lack the capability to print a paper record of each vote for the voter's inspection. Nevada plans to have voting machines of this type in place for the November elections.

    Florida election officials have so far rejected the cost and complexity of adding ballot printers. Besides, a state law passed in reaction to the aborted recount in the 2000 election prohibits manual recounts.

    Meanwhile, Ion Sancho, a supervisor of elections in Florida's Leon County, is actively encouraging voters who are concerned about the touch screen user interface to vote absentee. Although he picked an optical scan, rather than touch screen, system for his county, he has a personal reason for worrying about voting machine problems. In 1986, he lost a county commission election partly because the mechanical voting machines his county used at the time had been improperly programmed (with levers and switches, rather than software, but the effect was the same). He ran for his current post in the next election and won.

    While absentee ballots present their own challenges, the laws on how they should be handled are well-defined and election administrators have experience with them, Sancho says. "Much of the debate over e-voting technology, I will say, borders on the hysterical," he adds. "The problems that come back to haunt us are not generally major problems; they're small, cascading problems."

    But even small problems such as absentee vote coffee stains and user confusion-whether from paper ballots or electronic ones-could cause big headaches, given a tight Florida race that could once again hinge on a few hundred votes.

    How You Can Restore CONFIDENCE IN A SYSTEM

    Wholesale fixes may have unintended consequences.

    Keep track of what you do.

    Give distrusting users a backup way to get things done.

    Backup systems may have their own weaknesses.

    David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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