Accessibility links

U.S.: New Technology Touted As Way Ahead For Elections, But Critics Worry

  • Kathleen Moore

New technology has been increasingly touted as the answer to antiquated paper-based voting systems. But new hi-tech ballot boxes also have many critics, who worry about security and reliability.

Prague, 7 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Some voters in Venezuela complained loudly about having to wait hours to cast ballots in a referendum last month, shouting: "We want to vote!"

It wasn't just the huge turnout that caused delays -- there were also problems with new machines that use thumbprints to identify voters. Even the president, Hugo Chavez, had to try several times before his thumbprint was successfully recorded.

In a small way, Venezuela's thumbprint woes highlight the debate about new technology used increasingly in elections.

Electronic machines have been introduced in a growing number of countries as a way to modernize equipment and speed up ballot counting.

But there are concerns too -- that the new, hi-tech voting systems might cause more problems than they solve.

It was the tight U.S. presidential race of 2000 that put old-fashioned paper-based systems in the spotlight.

In the key state of Florida, Republican candidate George W. Bush won by only a few hundred votes -- close enough to create the need for an automatic recount.
One prominent e-voting supporter in the United States has issued a $10,000 challenge to anyone who can hack into a direct recording machine -- and do it undetected.

But the outdated voting machines had misread or disqualified many ballots, making that a difficult task.

Along with other problems, that forced a five-week delay in Bush's election as president.

Legislation was later passed to give money to individual states to modernize their electoral equipment.

The drive toward e-voting is happening elsewhere, too.

The Dutch have voted electronic-voting machines for years, and about half of Belgian voters cast their ballot electronically in the June regional and European elections. France has run some e-voting pilot polls for recent regional and European elections. And India used new machines in its general elections earlier this year.

Some of the new machines are stand-alone boxes with buttons; others use touch-screen computer technology.

Proponents give many reasons why e-voting is the best way forward. It saves time, as results are available sooner. It's easier to use for handicapped voters. They say it's harder to tamper with than stacks of paper ballots. And, arguably, it should increase turnout.

Ireland plans to use electronic voting in its next general election in 2006.

"Our system [is] very complex when it comes to counting, it's not a simple first-past-the post [system]," said David Walsh, an e-voting champion in Ireland's Department of the Environment, Heritage, and Local Government. "That's one reason why [we're changing the system]. The second one is that we haven't updated our system since the late 18th century. It's really based on very old election procedures. Ireland is moving forward and becoming an IT-centric country and we feel this is a very useful way to get quick results and demonstrate our willingness to embrace new methods and systems."

But there are concerns about the new systems.

Activists in the United States have cited numerous examples of strange results or errors in elections in various states that used electronic voting machines.

Experts also worry that some systems are vulnerable to fraud -- especially when they don't produce a paper record of how the votes have been cast.

"I'm certainly not a Luddite," said Ian Brown, an adviser to the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a U.K. think tank. "The problem is I know in very great detail how insecure computers are, how hard it is to trust a computer on something so important as the result of an election, and how many people will be willing to spend a great deal of money and effort trying to subvert those elections."

On 19 September, Kazakhstan will use electronic-voting machines in its parliamentary elections for the first time.

Officials there say the machines are convenient and that trials have been successful.

But not everyone is convinced. Critics say the machines are too complicated. And they say many people have been reluctant to have the necessary magnetic codes attached to their ID cards.

One Astana resident expressed his doubts: "Well, voting is a complicated thing. Even if it is electronic, a human controls it. I personally am not able to say if that kind of election is going to be fair or not. Even when there was no electronic device, there were lots of problems. Some people even voted for 10 persons, didn't they? This time it will be the same. Everything will depend on people controlling the computer anyway."

President Nursultan Nazarbaev listened last month as the new system got the blessing of Vladimir Rushailo, chairman of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Executive Committee:

"We see a lot of advantages in terms of the technical use of this system," Rushailo said. "First of all, data is processed very quickly, and secondly, it is impossible, in our opinion, to commit any kind of fraud or distort data, because it is simply impossible technically."

That more or less echoes the views of e-voting's supporters -- as well as of the companies that make the machines.

They point out there's been no proven case of tampering.

One prominent e-voting supporter in the United States has even raised a $10,000 challenge to anyone who can hack into a direct recording machine -- and do it undetected.

Stand-alone machines are said to be even more secure, as they're not connected to a network.

The Indian producer of the stand-alone machines used in this year's general election there even claims they're "100 percent tamper proof."

But critics say there's a simple way to ease any concerns -- have all electronic-voting machines produce a verifiable paper record showing how voters have cast their ballot.

In the United States, legislators have introduced a bill that, if passed, will require just that.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen services contributed to this report.)