September 27, 2016

Low tech vs high tech: How voting technology can void your vote.

For most polling stations, there are two types of voting machines; direct recording electronic (DRE) systems commonly known as the touch screen system and the optical scan or paper ballot.

When giving a voting rights and technology presentation at Washington University,  where he is also an adjunct professor, Webster University Adjunct Professor Scott Granneman says to avoid the DRE system.

“If you want to know your vote is going to count, do not use the touch screen machines,” said Granneman.

Granneman said that the DRE systems have a myriad of problems that can cause votes to be mis-recorded, undocumented and just plain wrong. Despite this, 39 percent of votes in 2012 were cast using DRE machines, according to Procon.org.

In his presentation, Granneman cited a Wired.com article that showed the DRE machines recorded 18,000 “no votes” for a 2006 Florida Congressional District race, five times higher than the normal “no votes” count, and the race was decided by less than 400 votes. Granneman also cited a Techdirt.com article showing a local election in Rapid City, South Dakota, had its voting totals nearly doubled by phantom votes, which are found when the number of votes reported is higher than the number of ballots cast.

If elections have these problems, the election can be contested, and if they are, votes tabulated on DRE are difficult to recreate. In the event of a recount, election officials go through voter verified paper ballots. DRE machines print this paper backup,but it is printed behind clear plastic and Granneman said about 10 or 15 percent of the paper ballot backups from DRE machines are shredded in the printing process. With the paper ballot, officials have physical evidence of how a person voted, and they can be counted in a recount.

And when voting on DRE machines in elections that do not get recounted, voters have no way of knowing if the machine registered the vote in accordance with the piece of paper or the way they touched the screen, so voters have to trust the machine.

This would not be an issue if the machines were reliable, but Granneman said they have a long track record of being the opposite.

Another major problem with the DRE systems is security in both software and hardware.

The computer code used in the DRE systems is closed source, or private to the company. This may seem like a good idea, but in the world of technology Granneman said closed source means outside experts cannot look at the code to improve it. Without outside eyes, Granneman said simple errors and security mistakes can create problems for the machines.

As for the physical machines, Granneman said the memory card used to store the voting results and a usb port that could be used to tamper with the machines is under lock and key. But in the case of Diebold, the most popular DRE manufacturers, the key is the same for all of the machines, and according to Granneman, it could be recreated using a picture that is available on the internet.

Granneman said the final issue with these machines is mostly operator error.

“The final problem is that they are computers, and so you are asking mostly elderly people [who serve as Election Judges] who have next to no technical training whatsoever to become computer administrators for a day,” Granneman said.

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