Electronic Voting Machines, Panacea or Gateway to More Trouble?

By Scott Sullivan

After the Florida recount debacle of 2000, there was a big push to modernize voting processes with electronic voting machines.

Electronic voting offered States a myriad of advantages over old paper ballots such as no “hanging chads”, dimpled ballots, or double votes; and near instantaneous tabulation at the close of voting. To support states transition to more modern voting infrastructure, Congress in 2002 passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA provided funding to states to allow them to meet minimum standards in election administration across such areas as: updated voting equipment, provisional voting, registration, and identification.

States allocated funds—both internal and those provided by HAVA—to modernize voting methods. Today, most jurisdictions utilize an electronic machine, optical scan ballot or both. An optical scan ballot has the voter complete a ballot by “coloring in” an oval corresponding to the candidate of your choice (similar to how you take many standardized tests), which is then counted by a machine and ballots retained. Electronic machines, on the other hand, have the voter directly use the machine to enter their vote, and its tabulated immediately.

In the move to electronic machines, it appears that some jurisdictions lost sight of the key feature of a voting system …  public confidence in the results. Many jurisdictions, including my precinct in Kentucky, use electronic machines, specifically Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machines (DRE),  without the ability to audit or recount the results. With all their shortcomings, one of the key features of paper ballots was the ability to recount the results without reference to the original report. Many of the machines in use across the nations spit out a ballot count at closing lacking an independent way to verify the accuracy of that count. Any recount is limited to reexamining the arithmetic that went into adding the various machine generated reports. There exists a fix for this problem, equip DREs with voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT), effectively a “receipt” that the voter verifies then drops into a ballot box. The VVPATs are then used for any post-election counts, whether they be a standard procedure, random audit or directed recount by a state’s election authority. To date, 31 states have statutes requiring some form of permanent voter record, whether it be VVPAT or paper ballot.

What does this mean for elections moving forward? When we hear talks of recounts after tonight’s elections, the type of machine used may play an important role in how that recount proceeds.