The technology we use to elect our next president is likely to emerge as a crucial factor, especially if the election is close. That’s not necessarily a good thing, according to an e-voting report issued Wednesday by security firm Fortify.
Fortify’s new report outlines how just three of the six voting systems in place across the land are fairly reliable: hand counted ballots, optical scan ballots and absentee ballots. Each allows voters to verify the selections they’ve made before casting their ballots, and election officials can recount the ballots if necessary, Fortify’s chief scientist and co-founder Brian Chess told me.
These tried-and-true systems are expected to be widely used in 31 states, accounting for roughly 60% of the ballots cast nationwide according to this chart compiled by Pew Center On The States.
Two technologies, lever machines and punch cards, have glaring weaknesses. Remember hanging chads? Thankfully, lever machines and punch cards are only being used in a very small number of instances.
However, the sixth technology -- Direct Recording Electronic voting systems -- is both notoriously unreliable and will be in wide use. DRE voting machines are essentially lightweight PCs running crudely-written software. There’s no easy way for voters using DREs to go back and verify their votes. What’s worse, the tallying functions of DRE systems have been shown to be prone to glitches and easy to manipulate, leaving no trace of a malfunction or a hack.
“When DRE machines screw up, there’s no way to know for sure what really happened,” Chess says. Legit votes can be summarily deleted; cheaters can take advantage “of the same kinds of weaknesses that lead to computer viruses and worms,” he says.
And yet DRE systems will be widely used in 19 states, covering about 33% of the ballots cast. DREs create opportunities for cheaters to "change results in a subtle way and escape detection entirely," say Chess. "This is a sad state of affairs because many of the problems with DRE machines are entirely preventable."
One sure prevention: dump DREs. That's what California Secretary of State Debra Bowen did. Bowen won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for sharply limiting use of DREs in the Golden State, despite heavy lobbying of DRE vendors.
It's too late for that now in swing states Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas and Florida where DREs lurk at the ready to help us elect our next president.
By Byron AcohidoPhoto: Les Ellason of Oklahoma City, casts his ballot in early voting for the Oklahoma primary on Monday, July 28, 2008.