10 Reasons Why Voting Systems Are Not Created Equal

Jorge Ribas finds out how we'll be voting in the future, regardless of who's running for office, in this clip from Discovery's "Tech" series.
Screencap by HowStuffWorks

Is there a more important part of the political process than voting? Electing politicians and leaders represents the foundation of any democracy or republic. And because voting is so important, it's always at risk of being undermined. Discrimination, for example, can still impact the voting process to this day, but voting systems introduce their own set of challenges into the mix, too. For example, electronic voting seems like a wonderfully convenient alternative to paper voting systems. Those are so wasteful! With electronic systems, everything is handled by a computer. No risk of human error. It's faster. What's not to like?

Well, what if the system gets hacked? A hardware failure could theoretically lose thousands or millions of votes with no paper backup. And hacking would be even worse! Votes would be susceptible to tampering. In that case, the results of an entire election could be swayed. But is that so different from non-digital voting systems? Voting security has always been at risk – it's just the type of risk that's changing.

Here are 10 examples of how voting systems differ; we'll walk through hand-counted methods and electronic counting systems, modern touch screen voting systems and hacking security, as well as absentee ballots and the future of voting in the Internet age. Will we all be voting online from our laptops and smartphones in 10 years? And if so, how will that possibly be secure? Let's take a look.

Card Scanners vs. Touch Screens

Modern voting systems are electronic, but the involvement of a computer doesn't necessitate a fancy touch screen voting box. For example, from the 1960s up until the year 2000, many voting locations in the United States used punch card systems to tabulate votes. Once a card has been punched, it's tabulated by a computer. Voila! Results. The 2000 election between Al Gore and George Bush illuminated a problem with punch cards that has caused most states to abandon the technology: Punching systems sometimes fail to fully pierce the ballot. Without a solid punch, a computer couldn't effectively count a vote.

Since 2000, many polling places have moved on to touch screen voting devices, which are more modern e-votingsystems. These easily eliminate the hanging chads (incomplete ballot punches) and dimpled punch cards that caused counting errors in 2000, and also avoid confusing butterfly ballots, which present candidates in awkwardly offset columns that make it hard to tell who you're actually voting for. With a touch screen, you just press the right name. At least, that's how it should work.

Punch cards were around for decades, but touch screen voting machines are a comparatively new technology. In 2008, some improperly calibrated touch sensors caused voters to accidentally vote for the wrong candidates [source: Zetter]. Electronic systems pose another challenge we'll get into on the next page: Should votes be tabulated on the machine, or sent over a network to a central tabulation location?

Voting With Direct Recording Electronics
Electronic voting machines like this one are more common than ever.
Electronic voting machines like this one are more common than ever.
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Electronic voting systems, such touch screen voting devices, don't actually produce physical ballots like punch cards. Votes are stored digitally on a memory cartridge, which is why they're called Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) systems. Advantages: There's no wasteful ballot printing, and language isn't an issue, since different languages can be programmed into software. DRE systems include non-touch inputs, like button-based voting devices, but aside from the input method, they all operate the same way.

DRE machines store votes in memory, which is physically taken to a central location to be tabulated for election results. The controversy around DRE machines comes into play with their modem connections, which can also be used to transfer votes via a larger network setup. While a point-to-point modem connection is much safer than transmitting data over the public Internet, security analysts have pointed out that phone lines are becoming more and more connected to the Internet [source: ProCon]. Hacking is still potentially an issue, but existing hacking techniques, like one performed by the University of Princeton on a Diebold machine, require physical access to the machine [source: Feldman et al].

It's hard to say if the machines are really any more susceptible to tampering than paper-based voting systems. Some organizations advocate paper trails for DRE voting systems to provide an audit trail. How do audit trails work? Let's tackle that next.

Auditing Methods

The principle behind vote auditing is simple: Humans should be double-checking machines. Audits don't necessarily assume that vote results have been tampered with -- they're designed to ensure votes haven't been miscounted and assure voters that the time they spend casting a vote is well worth it. The closer the race, the more important the audit. For example, New Mexico state law calls for a recount on federal- and state-level races where the victory margin is less than one-half of 1 percent [source: Verified Voting Foundation]. After concerns about vote rigging and fraud in a 2009 Afghanistan election, an audit of the election led to a run-off between President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah [source: NY Times].

In the 2000 Florida election, auditing took the form of painstaking recounts of punchcard ballots. Even recounts can't be perfect -- the auditors had to deal with improperly punched cards and determine what votes should be counted -- but a physical ballot can typically be re-checked to verify election results. That's why some organizations concerned with voting security advocate that all direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems use a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT).

A VVPAT records a voter's interaction with an electronic voting machine on paper. Though this limits the environmental benefit of an electronic ballot, it does provide a backup copy of a vote that can be used if an audit is necessary. In the U.S., 31 states have enacted laws requiring paper ballots as of 2009 [source: Verified Voting]. But not all states offer DRE machines with paper ballot backups. As of 2010, 14 states offered DRE machines with VVPATs [source: Verified Voting].

That number should grow as DRE machines continue to replace older voting systems. The statistics also illustrate the variety of voting systems used in modern elections, even within a single country. On the next page, we'll dive into some differences in voting system hardware.

Voting Hardware -- From Lever Machines to DREs
To use this card and lever voting mechanism, the voter must insert the ballot card, align the lever punch with each choice, and then push the lever down to punch a corresponding hole in the card.
To use this card and lever voting mechanism, the voter must insert the ballot card, align the lever punch with each choice, and then push the lever down to punch a corresponding hole in the card.

Paper ballots have been around as long as organized voting, but lever-action voting machines dominated elections in the U.S. for most of the 20th century. By the 1930s, many Americans found themselves in curtained voting booths, pulling levers to cast their ballots. Each movement of a lever would turn a wheel within the machine, notching up votes for a particular candidate or issue. Much faster than counting paper ballots!

Some voting precincts in the U.S. still use optical scanning technology to read votes off ballots much like the Scantron tests taken (and dreaded) by students. Optical technology has been around since the 1950s and 1960s, and presents disadvantages and advantages compared to punch-card systems. A verifiable paper trail is great for vote auditing, but inaccurate marks could cause the same computer tabulation errors as poorly punched cards.

Brazil has been using electronic voting machines since 1996. Their systems resemble the touch machines commonly used in the United States, but include a keypad next to the screen for input, making the systems much more affordable than touch screen machines. Other countries have their own unique voting practices. For example, in 2009, Australia decided to stop electronic voting trials due to added expense over paper ballots [source: The Age]. The U.K. is similarly hesitant to implement electronic voting systems. India, on the other hand, has embraced electronic voting by designing its own e-voting machines. In 2012, India's Election Commission ordered that new voting machines would include a paper trail for vote audits [source: The Times of India].

Next up: how various systems protect their votes.

Voting System Security

Old lever voting machines had a simple mechanism for preventing voters from casting multiple votes. Once a levers was flipped, it wouldn't reset until the voter pulled the privacy lever to leave the booth. One person, one vote. Vote audits function as a sort of post-election security: They can be used for recounts or to verify votes, but can't prevent fraud while votes are being cast. So how do modern electronic voting systems prevent tampering?

Voting machines have been scrutinized and researched for security flaws and potential issues. But not every potential issue produces change: For example, as mentioned on the DRE voting machine page, networked machines use modem connections even though hacking that data is theoretically possible. Data storage is typically quite secure. Diebold voting machines, for example, store votes on two separate memory units and the machines have power backups to prevent data from being lost. Still, there are cases of vanishing votes. An Election Systems and Software, Inc. machine used in a 2002 Florida election crashed -- and deleted election results.

When Australia was experimenting with electronic voting machines, their solution to security concerns was simple: Let everyone scrutinize the software. They made the code open source so that anyone could hunt down flaws [source: Wired]. Unfortunately, many studies of electronic voting machines have revealed both physical and software vulnerabilities. The 2006 report The Machinery of Democracy examines DRE and optical voting machines used in the U.S. Long story short: The right skills and the right access definitely make it possible to tamper with machines. So what happens when things go wrong?

Dealing With Voting Errors

When dealing with complex hardware and software, errors happen. In 2008, an Ohio election official discovered errors while uploading the votes from a Diebold subsidiary's machine. When multiple memory cards were uploaded for vote processing, some votes weren't counted. Cards had to be scanned several times to ensure all votes were accounted for. Antivirus software and an error in the machine's programming were both cited as causes of the problem [source: USA Today].

As we mentioned before, improperly calibrated touch screen voting machines can cause voters to register for the wrong candidates. The Florida recounts presented a prime example of dealing with old voting technology. Every questionable vote had to be recounted by hand.

Often voting errors come down to human blunders. For example, when Al Franken won the Minnesota Senate seat in 2008, he did so by 312 votes -- and a state Supreme Court ruling -- after the two candidates fought for eight months. Franken's victory came from close examination of ballots that each campaign challenged for various reasons: weird write-ins, half-marked bubbles, fingerprint smudges and the like [source: Tibbetts and Mullis].

Those sorts of errors don't crop up with electronic voting machines, since software offers a much more guided experience.

Voting System Software
One of the criticisms regarding electronic voting machines like this optical scanner is that the software they run could be hacked.
One of the criticisms regarding electronic voting machines like this optical scanner is that the software they run could be hacked.

On the last page, we mentioned that Australia's electronic voting software was made open source to allow anyone and everyone to comb over it for security flaws. That's an interesting approach to security, and brings up an argument that often surrounds computer software. Is it safer if the source code isn't publicly available? Or should we assume hackers will break through anyway and put the code out for public scrutiny? Security experts disagree on the issue.

In 2004, e-voting vendors in the U.S. agreed to submit their software to the National Software Reference Library for tracking purposes. Doing so prevented the secret installation of patches, or software updates, to voting machines without security testing -- the code could be compared against the NSRL's copy to determine if it had been changed [source: PC World].

Though the software used in voting machines differs around the world, security is always an issue. India used about 1.4 million electronic voting machines in recent elections, but a study from the University of Michigan revealed a way to tamper with those results by intercepting votes [source: BBC].

Voting system software is simply a computer program that interprets an input, like a touch screen, into a vote, then stores that information in memory for votes to be counted. Like any other computer software, it's potentially vulnerable to exploitation. On the bright side, modern software has opened up new doors for voters with disabilities. Let's take a look at technology designed to aid disabled voters.

Access for Voters with Disabilities
Some voters may need audio assistance to cast their ballots.
Some voters may need audio assistance to cast their ballots.

Everyone who has the right to vote should be able to do so, but it's not always that easy. Setting aside issues like discrimination, disabilities can make it very difficult for some voters to make it out to polling places and cast their ballots. Old lever-based voting machines were difficult for some with physical disabilities to operate. Punch card machines and scanned paper ballots aren't optimal choices for blind voters. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 aimed to replace older voting technologies and ensure accessibility for all Americans. Polling places must offer equal opportunities to the disabled, including the ability to vote independently.

That doesn't mean all voting systems have to be accessible for the blind or physically impaired -- polling places just need at least one machine designed to make voting accessible. Some DRE machines offer keypads and audio guides to allow blind voters to cast their ballots. Other systems offer large buttons that voters with dexterity issues can interact with. But there are still issues to overcome, just as there are with vote security. Even machines that verify votes with paper ballots remain inaccessible to the blind.

In 2011, the Election Assistance Commission began funding a program to design a universal voting machine accessible to anyone [source: Disabled World]. Using a single type of machine will make it easier for polling places to train staff, instruct voters and carry out maintenance.

Now it's time to switch gears a bit: How do voting systems work when you don't use a voting machine at all?

Absentee Voting

Sometimes, you're just not going to be able to make it to a polling location on election day. You may be stationed overseas in the military. Or orbiting the planet on the International Space Station. In those cases, early or absentee voting is a lifesaver. Absentee ballots in the U.S. are mailed out to those who request them ahead of elections. Some states require a stated excuse for absentee voting, but others will allow anyone to vote by mail with no excuse. The federal government also offers its own ballots for citizens living overseas or on active military duty.

Other countries handle absentee ballots differently. In Germany, anyone voting in a federal election can mail in an absentee ballot. At one time, an excuse was required, but Germany changed that law in 2008 [source: Wahlrecht]. The Netherlands allows voting by proxy, meaning one person can go to a polling station, cast his or her own vote, and also cast a vote for someone else. In a 2006 election, one in eight votes was a proxy vote [source: CBS.nl]!

Absentee voting is important because it allows people to vote who would otherwise miss the opportunity. But it's also really convenient (no need to leave home), and that convenience poses a new question: How will we be voting in the future? If easy voting is what we're after, we're going to see a whole lot more Internet voting down the road.

Internet Voting

If electronic voting machines with point-to-point modems are vulnerable to hacking, Internet voting must be even more risky. The practice does exist already, though it's not nearly as common as DRE or paper voting systems. In 2005, Estonia became the first country in the world to hold a general election via the Internet. In a 2011 Estonian election, Internet voters represented 24 percent of the tabulated votes [source: VVK.ee]. The e-voting period was open for several days of advance voting before the election, making it especially convenient for voters to get online and cast a vote. Unique ID cards are used to identify voters and ensure they vote only once.

Many countries are worried about the security of online voting. Larger populations make things more complicated -- while less than 600,000 people voted in Estonia's 2011 election, millions vote in elections in the U.S. and other nations. The U.S. is exploring e-mail and fax-based voting for Americans stationed overseas, even though security experts believe online voting is risky [source: NPR]. Of course, allowing members of the army to vote online is very different than opening up Internet voting to the entire public.

We're slowly moving in the direction of Internet voting with services like LiveBallot, which was used by a U.S. citizen living in Thailand to vote in the 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary [source: Mashable]. Still, electronic voting hasn't completely embraced modern technology. Who wants to return a vote via fax? As more countries adopt Internet voting platforms, the risk will be mitigated as much as possible. After all, paper voting has been around for hundreds of years, and that process stillisn't completely secure.


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Author's Note

Voting is a huge, heavy topic, but I had fun researching some of the more unusual election systems out there in the world. The U.S. isn't the only country skeptical of electronic voting systems, but I'm glad the government is pushing ahead with them. I'd love to see how a system like Estonia's Internet voting would work in a larger country. How many millions of citizens would vote thanks to the convenience? Security is essential, but the sooner we can move to a system like that, the better!

Related Articles


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