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Observers Voice Concerns Over Electronic Voting for 2008 Presidential Race

In the United States, touch-screen voting machines are more and more becoming the norm. While this new technology enables election officials to quickly tally the vote and determine the winners on Election Day, VOA's Jeffrey Young reports that it has also brought new problems that some observers say could erode public confidence in the election process.

Florida, November 2000. The White House contest between Republican Party candidate George W. Bush and Democratic Party challenger Al Gore was ultimately determined by a post-election recount of the state's paper ballot cards. In the next presidential election in 2004, many U.S. states decided to abandon paper systems and instead use touch-screen computer voting machines. But in embracing this new technology, new vulnerabilities have arisen.

The credibility of a democratically-elected government begins with balloting the public believes to be fair and accurately counted. And as the technology of voting advances, election officials have to take new steps to ensure accuracy, and with it, credibility.

In Montgomery County, in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland, as is true across the United States, election workers get special training in setting up and operating electronic voting machines. One instructor cites the steps taken to ensure the integrity of what the machines record.

"These machines are prepared under 24-hour [security] cameras, and people from both [the Democratic and Republican] parties when they are prepped and set up. Once we open them up [for voting], we are with them [the voting machines] every second until we re-lock them."

On the surface, using touch-screen machines to select candidates and tally the results would appear to be a big step forward. But analyst Gary Kalman at the independent U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C. cites a significant shortcoming.

"[With] many of these machines, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to actually audit the results. So if there is a challenge and a recount, all you can do is look at what the machine says. If the machine was wrong, there is no way to verify or to figure out through any alternative system whether or not the machine is accurate," says Kalman.

These concerns about verifying what an electronic voting machine recorded have prompted some observers, including Benjamin Ginsberg at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C, to call for part of the traditional balloting system to come back.

"Look, wherever you have a computer, it is possible to tamper with it. And that is why you need to have a paper backup. But I think there have been numerous dry runs [and] numerous studies, and the computer touch screen with paper backup is about as safe as you can get," Ginsberg says.

The paper backup Professor Ginsberg refers to would be a printed receipt of someone's votes that would be saved by election officials and used if there is an election recount. Unfortunately, many of the electronic voting machines now in use do not create receipts. So, states and [smaller subdivisions called] counties would have to purchase many millions of dollars worth of new equipment to have this capability.

But ultimately, what is at stake is the credibility of the election system in a democratic society.