Book Extract

Introduction: Why This Book?

“A fair and accurate election process is essential to any democracy.”
— Report on Election Auditing, the League of Women Voters

This book never should have been written. In 1934, the Brookings Institution published a great book by Joseph Harris entitled Election Administration in the United States, and that book ought to have done the job. Harris began his book with the following stinging critique: “There is probably no other phase of public administration in the United States which is so badly managed as the conduct of elections. Every investigation or election contest brings to light glaring irregularities, errors, misconduct on the part of election officers, disregard of election laws and instructions, slipshod practices, and downright frauds.”

Harris' assessment strikes at the heart of one of America's most cherished myths, that our democracy sets the gold standard against which all other nations can be measured. A few states adopted some of the reforms Harris recommended, but his work was largely forgotten. Perhaps those who repeated such criticisms during World War II and the Cold War risked being labeled unpatriotic. But even with the rise of the civil rights movement, criticism of American democracy was largely confined to minority voting rights issues; questions about the overall quality of American elections were largely ignored.

For many of us, the general election of 2000 was a wake-up call. That election showed the world that there was something wrong with the way we count votes in the United States. Naturally, there was strong pressure for reform in the aftermath. Florida moved quickly to abandon punched-card ballots, replacing them with a mixture of newer voting technologies, and many other states soon followed Florida's lead. After problems with the new touch-screen voting machines in Miami, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). This act provided a huge infusion of cash so that states could buy new voting equipment. Many states moved quickly to purchase new high-tech electronic voting systems, buoyed by the assurance that they were accurate, accessible, reliable, and secure.

Unfortunately, these assurances turned out to be overly optimistic at best, and misleading at worst. In their eagerness to have the most modern and best election equipment, and to take advantage of almost $4 billion in federal funding, well meaning election officials were quick to accept the claims of voting system vendors. Few questions were asked about crucial issues. How secure and accurate are these machines? How easy are they to use? How could an election audit or recount be conducted? There was little or no consultation with independent technical experts on these questions, and remarkably little scientific research. The implicit assumption appears to have been that no recount would ever be needed, because the new systems were so completely secure and reliable that there would no longer be any reason to challenge an election result.

As this book documents, the answers to the above questions are not very encouraging. Many of the new voting systems on the market have serious security flaws, and many are so badly designed that a substantial number of voters have had serious difficulty voting as they intended. Because post election recounts and audits could not or have not been conducted, it has not been possible to explain discrepancies in election results produced by many of these systems. Furthermore, subsequent scientific and engineering research on these voting technologies has revealed that the regulations governing the machines' construction and use are based on flawed assumptions about their operation.

Ironically, legislation that was prompted by a desire to improve our voting systems created a situation in which it became impossible to conduct a post-election audit or recount in many parts of the country. While things have improved in the past few years, there are still several states in which there is no way to recount votes. The nation is forced to accept results produced by voting systems that are known to be flawed, inaccurate, unreliable, and insecure.

Our laws have not kept pace with the enormous changes in how elections are being run. Court challenges of questionable results have been thrown out. Sometimes judges are unwilling or legally unable to require a new election; other times they may not understand the underlying technology or statistics on which the court challenge is based. Old laws mandating absurdly short periods of time for certifying election results have created pointless obstacles to conducting post-election audits or recounts. Most states lack legislation mandating sound post-election audits or recounts in very close elections, and some states have laws that make it all but impossible to verify election outcomes.

Meanwhile, states are being pressured to allow military and expatriate voters to return their voted ballots by fax or via the internet. Here, too, there has been a disconnect. Sometimes policy makers do not understand that email is sent over the internet, and therefore attaching a voted ballot to an email is in fact internet voting. Policy makers who strongly support the use of paper ballots in elections may not even realize that pure internet voting does not produce a paper ballot.

As they had with electronic voting machines, policy makers and election officials have been quick to accept all-encompassing claims of internet voting vendors about the security, accuracy and usability of this newest voting technology. Perhaps policy makers believe that internet voting is secure, in spite of widely publicized internet viruses and successful internet-based attacks on major corporations and entire nations. Or perhaps they feel that nothing is likely to go terribly wrong. Again, outside independent experts are rarely consulted.

A Book Overview

The recount battles following the November 2000 presidential election in Florida illustrate that the United States remains divided about whether that election properly represented the will of the people. Whatever the truth may be, the recounts and legal conflicts that followed Election 2000 raised serious doubts about the integrity of our system of elections. We are not interested in re-hashing the outcome of that election, but, like Joseph Harris over 75 years ago, we want to answer two questions: How did the United States come to accept voting systems and systems of election administration that could produce such unclear outcomes? And what can we do to improve things?

We are writing about an issue that significantly predates our involvement. Our story begins when inventors first joined the fight against the extraordinary corruption that arose in the Victorian era. Over a century ago the United States led the world in experimenting with using technology to count votes. In most of the world until very recently, people would have thought it absurd to count anything other than paper ballots. America has a longstanding attraction to technology, but the same can be said for Great Britain. As we document in Chapter 2, the British were the first to invent voting machines, but it was in American that saw their first use, starting in the 19th century.

What is special about elections in the United States? We show in Chapter 2 that the answer has two parts: First, U.S. elections are extremely complex because we elect people to so many different kinds of offices, and voting machines can eliminate some of the tedious and error-prone clerical work that follows from this. Second, the incidence of election fraud in 19th century America was astonishingly high, and voting machines were seen as a tool for fighting fraud. Despite their potential advantages, voting machines were subject to serious questions from the very start. Many of these questions apply just as well to today's electronic voting machines.

The rise and fall of punched cards offers interesting lessons, which we discuss in Chapter 3. After election 2000, the shortcomings of punched card voting seemed so obvious that one might ask how this technology was ever thought to be acceptable. It is ironic that one of the primary motives behind the introduction of punched card ballots was that they permitted real audits and recounts; it was the difficulty of conducting the recounts in 2000 that discredited this technology. The irony was compounded when paperless touch-screen voting machines replaced Florida's punched-cards, “solving” the hanging-chad problem while effectively eliminating audits.

Optical mark-sense voting, a technology that was developed in parallel with punched card voting, is described in Chapter 4. Punched-cards and optical-scan or mark-sense voting were the first two computerized vote-counting technologies to make deep inroads into the voting system marketplace. As we show in Chapter 5, the idea of purely electronic voting systems predates the development of national regulations. In Chapter 6 we examine how the problems posed by these technologies inspired the first serious efforts at drafting national voting system standards. It was only after some regulations were in place that direct recording electronic voting systems achieved more than token market penetration.

Unfortunately, HAVA did not succeed at eliminating or even reducing the controversies surrounding elections. Instead, paperless voting machines themselves have become the center of new controversies, as we illustrate in Chapter 7. Questions about the security, accuracy, and reliability of voting machines have resulted in court cases and bitter political battles. California has been a dramatic microcosm of these fights, which we explore in Chapter 8.

In addition to providing funds to update voting technology, HAVA required for the first time that voting systems be accessible for people with disabilities. In Chapter 9 we chronicle issues confronting people with disabilities and how disability rights activists were misled about and disappointed by paperless touch screen voting machines. We also describe how some voting systems have proven to be far more accessible to voters with disabilities than others.

Yet another requirement of HAVA was that states create statewide databases of all registered voters. Voter registration can be used as a tool to prevent fraud, but it can also disenfranchise voters. Chapter 10 examines how citizens have been disenfranchised historically, as well as policy and technical issues surrounding the new statewide databases of registered voters.

Internet voting is being touted as a method for increasing voter participation, especially for young people, as well as for military and civilians living abroad. We give an overview of the history and issues, as well as the risks, surrounding internet voting in Chapter 11.

Chapter 12 examines how some national good government groups, acting on the belief that the new paperless electronic voting technology would benefit minorities and people with disabilities, became unwitting advocates for insecure voting systems. Several of these organizations modified their positions when they realized that these systems were not what the vendors claimed them to be. We also discuss attempts to pass legislation to reform HAVA at the federal level, and analyze why these efforts failed. A critical component of all elections is counting the ballots and verifying that those counts are accurate. We address ways in which ballots can be manually counted, recounted, and audited in Chapter 13. We also describe other important aspects of elections that need oversight and auditing.

We close with Chapter 14 in which we present a list of crucial reforms. We hope that this book will provide the reader with the background and knowledge needed to help bring those reforms to fruition.