Technology

A Touchy Election Issue

While touch screens can help disabled voters exercise their franchise, they invoke security concerns. For its part, Internet voting is slow getting...
Roxanne KhamsiSeptember 30, 2004

As the Presidential election approaches, one of the hottest debates has nothing to do with the candidates. Instead, the controversy centers on the reliability of E-voting, which takes two forms: direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines that provide touch-screen selection, and voting via the Internet.

A 2001 study by the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project compared touch-screen voting to such traditional methods as lever machines, fill-in-the-blank forms, and the infamous punch cards that commanded so much attention in 2000. DRE machines proved nominally superior to punch cards as far as percentage of rejected votes, but lagged the other techniques. But in the 2002 elections in Georgia, where DRE machines were used, they fared better. MIT professor Ted Selker says “lots of supervision” combined with refined ballot design and improved placement of touch-screen options helped DRE machines advance.

Diebold Election Systems, a leading maker of DRE machines, claims that touch-screen technology helps people with disabilities or special language requirements cast their votes. But the larger issues of accountability and security have sparked enormous controversy, prompting more than half a dozen makers of DRE machines to form an alliance and pledge improvements.

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In 2002, Congress made $3.8 billion available to the states to upgrade voting systems, so those companies have plenty of incentive. Meanwhile, Internet voting, which was used in the Michigan Democratic caucuses and had been under consideration by the Pentagon as a way for as many as 100,000 soldiers and overseas American citizens to cast their ballots, shows little momentum. Last winter, citing security concerns, the Pentagon scrapped an Internet voting pilot project after an independent panel deemed secure Internet voting “essentially impossible.” But DRE machines will be used by approximately 30 states this November and are expected to account for 50 million votes.