Nightmare Scenario is Here - Computer Voting with No Paper
August 7, 2002
By Lynn Landes
Dr. Rebecca Mercuri has a dream....and political candidates
and their supporters had better listen up unless they want
to see all their hard work go down the tube because of voting
machine failure or finagling.
Mercuri is a computer science professor at Bryn Mawr College
in Pennsylvania, president of the consulting firm Notable
Software, and one of the nation's foremost experts in the
field of voting machine technology and security. Her testimony
has been used in legal battles involving voting system failures,
including the Bush-Gore election.
For the last 10 years she's dreamed of the day when voting
machines can be relied upon to register and count every vote
correctly; where man and machine, paper and process, come
together to guarantee an almost fail-safe voting system. She's
even given her dream a name, "The Mercuri Method for Voter-Verified
Physical Ballots." Yes, she's a bit of a nerd and proud of
But instead of seeing her dream come true, Mercuri is living
her worst nightmare. Scores of county election boards across
the nation have rushed out and bought the latest high tech
'paperless' voting machines. And leading the herd off the
cliff is Theresa LePore. That's right, the Queen of Chad,
Supervisor of Elections in Palm Beach County, Florida, who
some say single-handedly cost Al Gore the presidency, is back
with another debacle. Her office is being sued by the former
Republican mayor of Boca Raton, Emil Danciu, who claims that
the city council election held last March should be re-run
due to malfunctions in the new $14 million dollar computer
voting machines LePore bought from Sequoia Voting Systems
Sound familiar? But wait. There's a new twist to this old
tale. LePore is once again, and almost perversely, providing
a much-needed service by demonstrating how bungled the job
of electronic voting can get. The machines LePore purchased
can't be audited through a paper trail. There are no ballots.
Making matters worse, LePore signed an agreement with Sequoia
to protect their "trade secrets," which effectively prohibits
any party contesting an election from examining the machine
or its programming. That's convenient for Sequoia and the
winner, but alarming for critics who believe the voting process
should not be based on a Titanic leap of faith.
Mercuri says that in order for an electronic voting system
to have any integrity, five components must be present - a
voter, a ballot, a computerized voting machine, a printer,
and an optical scanner - and three basic steps must be taken.
First, the voting machine registers a voter's selection both
electronically and on a paper ballot. Second, the machine
then displays the paper ballot behind clear glass or plastic
so that the voter can review their selection, but not take
the ballot home by mistake. If the voter's selection doesn't
agree with the ballot or the voter makes a mistake, the voter
can call a poll worker to void the ballot, and then re-vote.
And third, the paper ballot is optically scanned (most likely
at the county administration building), providing a second
electronic tally. If anything goes wrong with either the voting
machines or the optical scanner, the paper ballots can be
hand-counted as a last resort or as part of an audit. And
voila! We have a fully auditable voting system with checks
and balances, review and redundancy.
This is an extremely important issue. Due to difficulties
using voting equipment, 1.5 million presidential votes were
not recorded in 2000, and up to 3.5 million votes weren't
recorded in the last election cycle for the Senate and state
governors, according to The CalTech/MIT Technology Report
of July 2001.
The chief problem with paperless computer voting, according
to Mercuri, is this, "Any programmer can write code that displays
one thing on a screen, records something else, and prints
yet another result. There is no known way to ensure that this
is not happening inside of a voting system." And Mercuri points
out, "No electronic voting system has been certified to even
the lowest level of the U.S. government or international computer
security standards..." The Federal Election Commission provides
only voluntary standards, and even those don't ensure election
"integrity," she says.
As for Internet voting...forget about it. "A secure Internet
voting system is theoretically possible, but it would be the
first secure networked application ever created in the history
of computers," says Bruce Schneier, founder of Counterpane
Internet Security, Inc.
This summer Congress has been working on H.R. 2275, which
provides for the establishment of an election standards commission.
Election standards would still be voluntary, but Mercuri believes
that the technical standards, if developed by the National
Institute of Standards and Technology, will be effective.
Unfortunately, the bill got tabled until the fall.
It's not too late to fix the problem for those counties that
have already bought paperless computer voting machines, like
my hometown of Philadelphia. Election officials can simply
attach a printer to the computer and then feed the results
into an optical scanner. A printer should cost about $20-50.
Optical scanners that are hand-fed can cost $3,000 – 4,000
and scan 2,000 - 3000 ballots per hour. For populated counties
automated units can cost $40,000 - $50,000 and scan 20,000
ballots per hour.
As it stands, the integrity of the voting process in the
United States has already been damaged. Without a paper ballot
and absent a voter's ability to check their selection, computer
voting is an invitation to across the board malfunction and
malfeasance. With the legitimacy of our representative democracy
at stake, it's time to make Dr. Mecuri's dream come true.
Lynn Landes is a freelance journalist who specializes in environmental
issues. She's a weekly commentator on BBC's Radio Five Live
and reports environmental news for DUTV in Philadelphia, PA.
Her website is at EcoTalk.org