Debate Over Electronic Voting

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Gwen Outen. And I'm Doug Johnson. Our subject this week is the debate about electronic voting.

The presidential election of two-thousand was one of the closest in American history. But, as closely divided as the nation was, the experience united people in a common belief. The election system needed reform.

Efforts to do so have centered on technology. By this November, an estimated one in three voters will use an electronic voting machine. But many people worry that the election could be a repeat of two-thousand.

Because of a dispute in Florida, the winner was not declared for thirty-six days. Florida counted almost six-million votes on Election Day. The Democratic Party candidate was Vice President Al Gore. The Republican nominee was Texas Governor George W. Bush.

The difference was so narrow, election officials had to count the ballots again. State law calls for a recount when the difference is less than one-half of one percent of the vote.

Some voters said their ballots were difficult to understand. Some ballots were also difficult for older computer systems to read. As a result, the Gore campaign requested that officials recount some disputed ballots by hand.

The Bush campaign blocked the hand recount in federal court. In time, the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court.

On December fourth, the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida. The court was divided five to four. The ruling, in effect, declared Mr. Bush the winner. He had five-hundred-thirty-seven more votes in Florida. The court also declared any additional recounts requested by Mr. Gore unconstitutional.

Nationally, Al Gore narrowly won the popular vote. But the United States uses the Electoral College system to elect presidents. The win in Florida meant that Mr. Bush had two-hundred-seventy-one electoral votes. A candidate needs two-hundred-seventy to win the presidency.


The election dispute in Florida led the federal government to take action. In two-thousand-two, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. The main purpose of this law is to help states replace old voting machines with modern systems. Yet there are strengths and weaknesses to every voting system.

Most Americans marked their votes on paper ballots until a machine called the Myers Automatic Booth appeared. That was in eighteen-ninety-two, in Lockport, New York. Voters entered the booth and pulled on mechanical devices to make their choices. Another device attached to the machine counted the votes.

Mechanical voting machines spread to most big cities in the United States by the nineteen-thirties. A lot of Americans still vote on machines that are no longer made.

Computers entered the American election process in the early nineteen-sixties. These machines use a punch-card ballot that can be read by a computer. Voters strike holes to mark their choices. The ballots are then fed into a computer that uses light to count the holes.

Many parts of the country, including areas in Florida, still used this system during the two-thousand election.

But, when voters make their choice, a small piece of paper is sometimes left over the hole. These pieces that do not fully disconnect are called chads. Computers may not count ballots that have what became widely known in the two-thousand election as "hanging chads."

Under the Help America Vote Act, millions of dollars are being spent to replace old punch card and mechanical voting systems. State and local governments are buying systems where the ballot appears on a computer screen. Voters touch the screen to make their choices. These systems can provide results quickly.

But technical problems have been reported. There are also questions about computer security. The worst fear is that someone dishonest might be able to steal an election.

Avi Rubin is a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He and a team of researchers say electronic voting systems are not acceptable for the presidential election this November. They argue that there are still too many problems.

Professor Rubin says electronic voting machines should be required to print out a copy of votes. These records would be saved in case of the need for a recount, or to confirm that the system worked correctly.

Many organizations and political groups support this proposal. The Verified Voting Foundation and People for the American Way are urging their members to demand voter receipts in November.

And last month the League of Women Voters withdrew its support for electronic voting without any paper records. Members had criticized its position. A resolution passed by the group now calls for "secure" and "recountable" voting systems.

Many states have proposed legislation to require a paper record of every vote. Similar legislation has been proposed in Congress.

One of the largest providers of electronic voting systems is Diebold, based in Ohio. Its machines are used in Ohio, Texas and Georgia and other states. Critics of electronic voting note that the chief executive officer of Diebold has raised a lot of money for President Bush. Walden O'Dell was criticized last August after he promised to help make sure the president received Ohio's electoral votes.

Mr. O'Dell later expressed regret for his comments and promised to limit his activities. And last month an Ohio newspaper reported that he went further. The Cleveland Plain Dealer said he got company directors to bar top Diebold officials from all political activity except voting.

DeForest Soaries heads the Election Assistance Commission in Washington. Congress established this agency as a result of the two-thousand election. Mr. Soaries was elected chairman when the commission held its first public meeting in March of this year. He says states should increase the security of electronic voting in November.

He also says makers of electronic voting machines should release their computer software. That way security experts could examine the programs for weaknesses. And Mr. Soaries has called for collecting information about problems with the machines. He says steps like these would help increase public trust in electronic voting.

In California, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley says he wants to do just that. Mr. Shelley is the chief elections official in America's most populated state.

He has ordered that all electronic voting systems in California must provide paper records by two-thousand-six. Until then, he wants people who do not trust electronic voting machines to have the right to vote by a traditional paper ballot.

Mr. Shelley has also barred the use of electronic voting machines in some areas until they are more secure.

But some local officials are not happy. They have gone to court to oppose his orders.

The push to modernize the electoral process is not just in the United States. Earlier this year, parliamentary elections in India used electronic voting machines. Voters in Italy used electronic voting machines last month to choose representatives to the European Union. And voters in Venezuela will use them in August, in a special election to decide if Hugo Chavez will remain president.

This November, about three out of four Americans will vote on the same equipment they used four years ago. But election officials say it is simply a matter of time before electronic voting is much more common in this country.

Our program was written by Jill Moss and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Doug Johnson.

And I’m Gwen Outen. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English.