TOPICS > Politics

Electronic Voting Raises Fears of Glitches, Fraud

November 2, 2006 at 6:09 PM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

KWAME HOLMAN: In a new major studio movie, Robin Williams plays a marginal presidential candidate who, shockingly, wins, aided by a computer glitch in electronic voting machines.

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN, Actor: Whoops.

LAURA LINNEY, Actress: You’re going to be president of the United States.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even though no real-life electronic vote fraud has been proven, fear of it seems widespread. Two-thirds of respondents in a recent CNN poll said computer hackers were likely to change vote counts in next week’s elections.

Electronic voting has some people longing for good-old paper ballots, or at least paper verification of their electronic vote.

VOTER: I would feel more confident that my vote would be counted if there was actually a paper trial to verify the vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: But even equipping the all-electronic vote machines with paper backups has run into trouble. In Ohio’s May primary, 10 percent of those backup paper ballots jammed in the machines or were otherwise unreadable.

REPORTER: What was your reaction when you heard that they weren’t working? What did you think?

VOTER: I said, “Here we go again, because they’re always messing up.”

KWAME HOLMAN: One Ohio voter smashed an electronic voting machine.

In a state that pioneered electronic voting, Maryland, September primary voters waited for hours just to get to their touch-screen machines because workers forgot to bring the access cards that activate them.

VOTER: I think someone probably needs to lose their job over this.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Colorado voters, using electronic voting machines for the first time ever in August, had problems. The result was a lawsuit aimed at decertifying their use in the state.

But the most serious charge against electronic voting is that it’s too vulnerable to tampering, including malicious hacking aimed at changing an election result deliberately.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: There is such a powerful awareness among the American people about this question of the deficiencies in the technology that it has actually undermined confidence in the election process.

Return to paper ballots

Rep. Dennis Kucinich
D-Ohio
If somebody can show me you could have an election with a 100-percent assurance ... then yes, I'm ready to hear what they have to say. But until that time, look, there's plenty of reasons to be concerned.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a presidential candidate in 2004, is calling for a return to paper ballots for future presidential elections because, he says, paperless electronic machines are unreliable.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: It's not failsafe. If somebody can show me you could have an election with a 100-percent assurance, that there's no vulnerabilities to attack, there's no vulnerabilities in the software, that the software works like a dream and the hardware's perfect, people can show that, then, yes, I'm ready to hear what they have to say. But until that time, look, there's plenty of reasons to be concerned.

KWAME HOLMAN: Doubts about electronic voting are a new problem that arose from trying to fix an old one. The 2000 presidential vote-counting nightmare in Florida was the catalyst for a national move toward electronic voting and away from paper punch-card ballots.

Doug Chapin, director of the nonpartisan Electionline.org, says Congress responded in 2002 with legislation that bankrolled a switch to electronic voting by states and localities.

DOUG CHAPIN, ELECTIONLINE.ORG: There was, I think, very much like a gold rush across the country, that suddenly there was this huge amount of money available to states and localities. And these vendors, who had had to sort of fight from county to county, living almost hand to mouth for years, were suddenly faced with the possibility of selling not tens, but hundreds of different jurisdictions on their technology.

Chances of hacking

Edward Felten
Princeton University
One main finding is that the machines are susceptible to computer viruses that spread from machine to machine and silently transfer votes from one candidate to another.

KWAME HOLMAN: Electronic voting now so dominates polling places that the overwhelming majority of voters will use one of two kinds on November 7th. Optical scan machines, which read hand-marked ballots electronically, but preserve the paper ballot, are available to 84 million voters.

But a simmering controversy continues to surround touch-screen, so-called "direct recording," electronic machines. They tally votes only electronically, many producing no paper record at all. Favored for their ease of use by disabled voters and those with limited language skills, touch-screens may be used by up to 66 million people -- nearly 40 percent of all voters -- and three times the number who used them in 2000, and they are under attack.

EDWARD FELTEN, Princeton University: Tampering with an old-fashioned ballot box can affect a few hundred votes at most. But injecting a virus into a single computerized voting machine can potentially affect an entire election.

KWAME HOLMAN: Several elections experts, including Princeton computer scientist Ed Felten, testified before a House committee in September. They said, despite widespread attention to the issue in the last two years, touch-screen machines still can be hacked into fairly easily and have their vote counts changed without detection.

EDWARD FELTEN: One main finding is that the machines are susceptible to computer viruses that spread from machine to machine and silently transfer votes from one candidate to another.

KWAME HOLMAN: Shortly after his congressional testimony, computer science professor Ed Felten demonstrated that point for us at his Princeton University lab.

EDWARD FELTEN: Basically, what we did is take it apart to figure out how it worked.

KWAME HOLMAN: Felten says he acquired a now two-year-old machine -- the AccuVote-TS -- made by the leading touch-screen manufacturer, Diebold Election Systems, from an anonymous person who was concerned about the security of the machines.

EDWARD FELTEN: Now your vote is recorded in the electronic memory inside the voting machine and it ejected your voter card. The voter card has been disabled, so you take it and give it back to the people at the front desk, and then you leave.

Identifying the problem

Mark Radke
Diebold Election Systems
I simply touch on the name of the candidate I'd like to select. And you notice here I cannot over-vote in that race. It will not let me to over-vote. That was one of the largest problems they mentioned in Florida in 2000.

KWAME HOLMAN: It seems like the machine told me I voted for the candidate I wanted to vote for. Where's the problem?

EDWARD FELTEN: Well, that's what it told you, but the permanent record of your vote is inside the -- well, we hope it's permanent -- is inside the electronic memory of this machine, just in a regular computer file. And the problem is that you don't have any way of knowing right now whether what's in that file matches what you actually said you wanted to vote for.

KWAME HOLMAN: Professor Felten said he was able to introduce a computer virus into the Diebold machine via an infected memory card he could slip into the back of the machine after getting past a rudimentary lock.

EDWARD FELTEN: In fact, right now inside this machine, the virus is running. Every five seconds, it wakes up and looks at your vote and decides whether it likes it or not. And if it doesn't like it, it will change it.

MARK RADKE, Diebold Election Systems: With all due respect to Princeton University, that was not a real-world test.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mark Radke is marketing director for Diebold Election Systems. He rejects Professor Felten's test.

MARK RADKE: ... the normal election procedures have not been taken into consideration. The physical security, a lot of the electronic security that is built into the system, was not considered during their testing.

And, in fact, I'll go back once again to the independent testing that has been done on the system. They have reviewed all that and, again, considered that during their testing process and have approved the system.

Keep in mind these machines are never connected to the Internet; they're not connected together in the precinct location. These are stand-alone locations. And, to be honest with you, you have people from both parties involved in the entire setup of the election. So each are looking over each other's shoulder during the entire process.

KWAME HOLMAN: Radke demonstrated Diebold's latest touch-screen machine.

MARK RADKE: I simply touch on the name of the candidate I'd like to select. And you notice here I cannot over-vote in that race. It will not let me to over-vote. That was one of the largest problems they mentioned in Florida in 2000.

People remain the deciding factor

Doug Chapin
Electionline.org
The weakest link in voting technology is the biggest moving part, and that's the human being involved. ... They're the ones who have the most to learn about the machines, rather than the machines learning about the people.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Radke admits, valid or not, public concern about computer hacking led Diebold and other manufacturers to develop machines with backup paper verification of each electronic vote. Voters are barred from leaving the polls with a paper record of their actual votes because it sets up the potential for vote-selling.

MARK RADKE: I've checked my selections, and everything is the way I'd like it to be. Now I go ahead and print out my selections over here on the paper audit trail printer. In November, we'll have approximately 130,000 touch-screen units deployed throughout the country.

KWAME HOLMAN: Radke and other proponents say electronic voting virtually eliminates voter error and that the technology captured more than a million votes nationwide in 2004 that would have been uncountable under traditional paper-ballot systems.

MARK RADKE: Keep in mind, Election Day is about 15 to 17 hours long. And you've got poll workers that work the entire length of time, are up to 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, and these are the people that are going to be counting the ballots at midnight. We feel very strongly that electronic voting certainly provides a better solution from that standpoint, and it's proven to be reliable.

KWAME HOLMAN: Whether the votes are recorded electronically, with punch cards or lever systems or simple hand-marked ballots, people remain the most important variable on Election Day, says Electionline's Doug Chapin.

DOUG CHAPIN: We're learning that, right now, the weakest link in voting technology is the biggest moving part, and that's the human being involved. Whether it's the poll worker or the voter or the election official, they're the ones who have the most to learn about the machines, rather than the machines learning about the people.

KWAME HOLMAN: All of those groups will come together next Tuesday in the effort to make sure that the candidates who win the election are the ones actually chosen by the most voters.