Unplugged Election
California bans electronic voting.


Claiming that fraud threatened the upcoming presidential election, California’s Secretary of State Kevin Shelley dropped a bombshell last Friday. Just six months before a presidential election, he banned counties from using 43,000 electronic voting machines this fall unless paper receipts are provided and a long list of other conditions fulfilled. County registrars were in a state of shock predicting that the move this late in the year spelled chaos.

The momentum behind Shelley’s decision has been building for some time. Last month Democrats on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights claimed electronic voting machines meant: “We’re ending up in ‘04 with the very same problems and issues that were there before.”

Senators Hillary Clinton and Bob Graham, as well as Congressmen Rush Holt and Tom Davis, recently introduced legislation to help prevent any fraud by requiring that electronic machines have paper-recording devices. Florida Congressman Robert Wexler has even brought a lawsuit because he worries that the Bush brothers will steal the election again, this time using electronic machines.

State and federal governments have spent billions of dollars to replace punch-card machines with electronic machines. Yet, instead of improving the election process, the claims of fraud may poison the political debate for years to come.

Bill Maher’s jokes may be funny: “Some 13-year-old hacker in Finland is going to hand the presidency to Kylie Minogue!” And, more seriously, Senator Clinton warns Democrats how “hacking” can easily “skew our elections” and points out that a Republican is the second largest manufacturer of electronic voting machines.

While scary, the stories have one major problem: None of the systems is hooked up to the Internet. The electronic voting machines are stand-alone units. Hacking into them is impossible.

After the election, most electronic voting machines transfer the election results to a compact disc or some other “read only” format. These CDs are then taken to a central location where they are read into a computer. In the 20-plus years that these machines have been used, in many counties all across the country, there has never been a verified case of tampering.

When computer scientists warn of possible tampering with voting machines, they are not talking about hacking, but about someone physically breaking open the lock on each individual machine and reprogramming it. Even if those breaking into the machines overcome the tamper-proof seals without being noticed, going through one computer at a time hardly seems like the way to steal most elections.

And even if such tampering were to occur, it would become readily apparent as the precinct election workers checked the machines for accuracy with sample votes both before and after the election.

Some machines are even randomly chosen to test during the day just in case their programs have been set to only miscount votes during voting hours. If the programming switches, say, one out of every ten votes, it would show up when sample votes are fed into the machines.

A few electronic voting machines, along with even more optical scans, offer election officials the option to collect vote counts using encrypted modems in addition to removable read-only memory. Michael Wertheimer, a security expert commissioned by the state of Maryland to evaluate electronic voting security, reportedly “broke into the computer at the state Board of Elections” during a test and “completely” changed the election results.

Yet the tampering wasn’t under real-world conditions, it used an old system, and it really didn’t change the results. Not only does a hacker have to know what telephone number to call, bypass the modem encryption, and determine the password within a very narrow time frame, but two sets of calls reportedly from the same precinct would raise a red flag. Even if all those things go wrong, the original data in the voting machines would not be compromised, and it would still be possible to conduct an accurate recount.

Interestingly, no politicians so far have raised these same concerns about optical scans even though this threat involves hacking a central computer, not electronic voting machines.

So what about the claim that electronic voting machines make recounts impossible because they lack paper records? Each electronic voting machine contains multiple redundant memories that are “read only.” These unalterable memories are just as available to be rechecked as paper records.

Paper ballots add nothing, except generating unnecessary costs. Possible computer crashes or corrupted data are taken care of by multiple redundant memory systems, some of which cannot be altered but are “read only.” These memories are constantly checked for any differences.

Given all the fraud that has occurred with paper records over the years, it is remarkable that they are now held up as the gold standard. Take just one example of how paper records could be misleading. Suppose that voters are given a chance to double-check their electronic ballots and signal that they are either correct or not. If incorrect, the machine prints out a statement voiding the original receipt and voters are allowed to vote again. If the programming fraud is rampant, as critics claim, a machine could simply void the paper record after the voter has left and then print out a new receipt.

The irony is that the politicians who complained the loudest about how punch-card machines and hanging chads in Florida disenfranched voters are now complaining the loudest about what they earlier insisted was the “cure.” Conspiracy theories may rally the political faithful, but at the risk of even greater hostility and mistrust among voters.

John R. Lott Jr., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, served as the statistical expert for the minority report produced by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Florida 2000 election.