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Let’s Restore Confidence in the Integrity of the Vote

  • Deborah Goldberg
Published: August 8, 2004

The Sun Herald
August 8, 2004

Let’s Restore Confidence in the Integrity of the Vote

Restoring public confidence on Election Day
By Wade Henderson and Deborah Goldberg

The election on Nov. 2 will be different from any previous American election, for reasons having nothing to do with President Bush, John Kerry, Iraq, terrorism or the economy.

Never before have voters been so worried about the security and accuracy of the machinery that counts our votes. Never before have local election officials been under such pressure to produce transparent and truthful tallies of the ballots cast in their jurisdictions. Never before has public confidence in the voting process been so much at stake.

This is the daunting legacy of the 2000 presidential election. The deep political divisions in our country and the intense passions for and against the standard-bearers of the two major parties only raise the importance of successfully meeting this challenge.

When Election Day arrives, a big part of the story will be electronic voting machines – or DREs, for Direct Recording Electronic voting systems, as they are known by election officials and other voting experts. In November, these electronic voting machines will be used in all or part of 28 states. Nearly 30 percent of registered voters in the United States live in electoral districts that will use electronic voting machines.

Fast – but not fail-safe

Election officials purchasing DREs saw the new technology as a means for increasing efficiency and accuracy of the vote count and expanding access to the voting booth for disabled voters and people with limited English proficiency. Their judgment may well prove to be correct. But what was not fully anticipated was the widespread alarm that would be raised about the possibility of tampering with the new voting machinery to produce fraudulent electoral outcomes.

Last month, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition, jointly released a report and a set of straightforward recommendations to help state and local election officials address this concern. Our recommendations urge that:

Election officials hire independent security experts to assess vulnerabilities by testing the new machines both before and on Election Day.

The experts identify practical steps for improving security and help election officials to implement the improvements.

Training procedures for all election workers be established so the security protocols are not disregarded under the pressure of Election Day.

Permanent independent panels, including computer experts and citizens from diverse communities, be created to monitor the voting process.

All of these recommendations and others in the report can be implemented before Election Day if officials act now.

Most computer security experts who have studied DREs, indeed even many critics of the machines strongly endorse these recommendations. The Electronic Information Privacy Center and the National Committee on Voting Integrity support their adoption. Avi Rubin, author of the widely praised Johns Hopkins study of DREs, says the recommendations offer valuable guidance on how to lessen security risks, and that “election officials should move forward rapidly.” And leaders of civil rights groups and advocates for the disabled who care deeply about voting rights and the integrity of our elections agree.

Implementing these recommendations will not give us 100 percent certainty about the integrity of electronic machines. But anyone who knows anything about voting technologies knows that there is no perfectly accurate or secure machine. Paper ballots can be stuffed or lost; punch cards leave hanging chads; votes on lever machines can be tallied incorrectly. What the recommendations can do is provide a road map for election officials who are trying to do their best with DREs.

Even strong supporters of a voter-verifiable paper trail should welcome these recommendations. Most experts agree that it will not be possible for jurisdictions with DREs to develop that capacity by November 2004. But election officials who implement the recommendations can give voters confidence that everything possible is being done to ensure that votes will be counted fully and accurately.

As the 2000 election taught us all, only a fool would predict what will happen on Election Day this year. But this much can be said with confidence: Election officials adopting the recommendations offered by our organizations will markedly increase the likelihood that electronic voting machinery will be used successfully. They will be applauded for their efforts by broad cross-sections of the civil rights and computer security communities. And, most importantly, they will have earned the trust of voters who want meaningful assurance that their vote will count in November 2004.

This article also appeared in the following newspapers:

  • The Bergen Record (August 1, 2004)
  • Chattanooga Times (August 1, 2004)
  • Hamilton Spectator (July 31, 2004)
  • Newport News Daily Press (August 1, 2004)

Wade Henderson is executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 1629 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20006. Deborah Goldberg directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 161 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013.