Below is Gary Chapman's Los Angeles Times column for Monday, November 13,
2000, on some of the difficulties with computer-based voting.
Date: Tue, 14 Nov 2000 11:05:57 -0600
From: Gary Chapman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: L.A. Times Column -- Computers and Elections
X-Listprocessor-Version: 8.2.09/990901/11:28 -- ListProc(tm) by CREN
Online Voting, Even if Secure, Won't Solve Election Troubles
By Gary Chapman
Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
The uproar over last week's election results, particularly the
controversy over the vote in Florida, has fueled calls for online
voting. Some experts think the problems of last week could be solved
by computerized voting, while others insist that is fraught with
Controversy about how computers handle votes has been around for a
while. It was an issue championed for years by longtime Los Angeles
civil-liberties activist Mae Churchill, who died in 1996 at age 84.
Churchill was the founder of Pacific Palisades-based Election Watch,
and 15 years ago she convinced many technical experts that there are
serious problems when computers are introduced into the voting
"Mae Churchill got me into this issue," said Peter Neumann, a
researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., and an
internationally known authority on computer security. Now, he said,
"I would not trust a computerized voting system even if I had written
itmyself, because of the many ways in which such systems can be
"It's so easy to rig an election," Neumann said. He cited the fact
that "punch card" ballots -- the cardboard ballots that use a punched
hole to read a vote -- can be invalidated simply by running a needle
through a stack of the cards. That can make it look like a vote for
two candidates for the same office. Florida election officials threw
out more than 19,000 ballots last week because of the appearance of
voters selecting two candidates in the presidential election.
In Boston in 1993, Neumann said, a local election's results were
reversed after authorities discovered errors caused by "hanging
chad," the tiny paper remnant of a punched hole that can hang off the
back side of the card ballot and then reclose the hole when the
ballot is run through a light scanner for tabulation. This problem
reportedly caused some of the vote tallies to change in last week's
recounts in Florida.
Also in 1993 in Florida, a St. Petersburg precinct that had no
registered voters because it was an industrial area showed 1,429
votes for an incumbent mayor, who won by 1,425 votes.
Another Florida case happened in 1988, when there were 200,000 fewer
votes in the Senate race than for the presidential candidates, and
most of the missing votes came from four counties that used the same
computer vote-tallying vendor.
"If it was built by man, it can be broken by man," said Doug Lewis,
director of the Election Center in Houston, an organization that does
training and consulting for election officials nationwide. "People
asking for [online voting] don't understand the electoral process and
the incredible safety and security problems that go into that."
"I do worry that computer elections systems are large and complex
systems," said David Jefferson, the technical director of the
California Internet Voting Task Force and a researcher at Compaq
Systems Research Center in Palo Alto. "The main worry is not bugs in
the software or in communications, but each time they are used they
have to be configured rather elaborately. Ballot choices have to fit
a voter's residence, which can often be a complicated task. If they
are misconfigured they can produce erroneous results."
The California secretary of state's task force on Internet voting
recommended against remote online voting earlier this year.
"We have to understand that the security problems for allowing that
are so severe that we can't recommend that solution at all. These
problems are inherent in the architecture of the personal computer,"
Instead, some online voting proponents are supporting an interim
solution: polling-place computer voting. "That kind of Internet
voting can be fielded now, and the security problems are manageable,"
Polling-place electronic voting involves using a networked computer
to vote at a conventional polling site. This method has the added
security of controlling the machines and identifying each voter in
Some argued last week that polling-place electronic voting would have
solved some of the problems Florida encountered. "Spoiling a ballot
would be prevented by computer," Jefferson said. The computer program
could prevent a confused or deliberate vote for two candidates in the
same race. Another benefit might be that counties could report
real-time vote counts, which could help prevent television networks
or Web sites from inaccurately guessing at how a state's electoral
college vote might turn out. Vote totals also could be reported
instantly after the polls closed.
But Jefferson said the alleged confusion last week in Palm Beach
County, Fla., where some people claim to have voted for Pat Buchanan
when they meant to vote for Al Gore, still could be a problem in
electronic voting, Jefferson said.
"Someone with a good design sense has to be in charge of the design
of a screen, just like a paper ballot," he said. Even so, the
obstacles to adopting polling-place electronic voting are daunting.
Aside from the expense of providing every polling place with multiple
computer systems, there are still significant security issues and a
dearth of trained personnel in our election system.
"Most of us who have been in elections a long time are uncomfortable
with the idea of turning over elections to a private, for-profit
company," said Lewis of the Election Center. Although private
companies do run election systems, they are supervised by public
officials, usually at the county level. Few counties in the U.S. can
afford to pay for technical experts who can evaluate and monitor
sophisticated networked computer systems with multiple redundancies,
encryption, complex backup and security measures, and
Moreover, Lewis said, fraud in U.S. elections is low because the
systems we use are so decentralized and cumbersome. Centralized and
computerized data would be a tempting target for hackers, subversives
and perhaps foreign governments, he said.
"Even companies with tens of millions of dollars for protecting their
systems are penetrated," Lewis said. "How many counties have that
kind of money?"
"Electronic voting is not going to solve our problems," Neumann said.
Lewis added: "Everyone wants instant Internet gratification. We've
been conditioned to expect this now. The truth is we're not going to
have instantaneous Internet voting. We're not going to be doing this
in 'Internet time.' "
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at
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