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9/20/2006
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If E-Voting Is A Gamble, Could Web-Based Voting Be In The Cards?

This election season, you may be one of the approximately 60 million American voters who will be casting a vote using new computerized systems at your local polling place. However, in the future, you might be casting your vote using your home PC and the Internet. That's what some U.S. election officials predict.

This election season, you may be one of the approximately 60 million American voters who will be casting a vote using new computerized systems at your local polling place.

However, in the future, you might be casting your vote using your home PC and the Internet.

That's what some U.S. election officials predict.This year, American voters in more than 30 states will be using direct-recording electronic--or DRE--voting systems to cast their ballots.

Most states have updated their equipment and voting procedures in compliance with 2006 deadlines in the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provided funding for states to replace their lever and punch-card voting gear, as well as make voting easier for the disabled.

But like the hanging paper chads of the presidential elections in 2000, DRE is getting a pretty bad rap from some. The technology's critics include voter advocacy groups and some researchers that say the systems are unreliable, unverifiable, and have security flaws that allow tampering.

In fact, last week a Princeton University professor and two grad students released a study explaining how they were able to hack and change votes undetected in an older e-voting system they obtained from an undisclosed source.

Meanwhile, counties in Maryland and Ohio using DRE systems for their primaries last week also reported trouble. However, most of their problems were people-related, like not setting up the equipment properly.

Despite these glitches and criticism, federal election officials are confident that e-voting systems will prove reliable, accurate, and secure.

"There are some legitimate concerns" about DRE, admits Paul DeGregorio, commissioner of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, an agency created by the Help America Vote Act to assist in administration of federal elections.

But DeGregorio adds, "I haven't heard of one incident [of DRE tampering] during an active election. I've seen reports of how these systems are opened up. But if they allowed you access to a bank vault, you'd figure out a way to open that, too," he says.

To date, actual on-the-scene problems with DRE, including the trouble in Montgomery County last Tuesday, have been due to human mistakes that will be conquered once everyone gets used to using these newer systems, DeGregorio says. "There will be glitches, but there is a learning curve," he says. After users get over that hump, elections using the new systems will go more smoothly. "I think we'll need more professional training of election officials around the country," he says.

And to further alleviate public fear of election-fixing, DeGregorio says he encourages election officials "to set up Webcams in their vote-counting rooms so that everyone can see there's nothing to hide."

In fact, DeGregorio thinks voting eventually will go over the Internet, despite the security fears people have today about current e-voting.

"That day will come sooner than we think, despite the skeptics," he says. "We'll find fixes to technology problems. We always do."

As e-voting technologies improve and mature, the Web will be an important way to reach young people, who are notorious for not voting. "I've got four daughters, ages 19 to 27, and they ask me, 'Dad, when can I vote on the Internet?'," he says.

This year in Washington State, most voters are already casting their ballots from home. But they're not using a computer or the Web. They're using paper mail-in ballots. State legislation approved last year allows counties to opt for all-mail-in voting. Out of the state's 39 counties, 34 now have all-mail-in voting, with the exception of DRE touch-screen systems in polling sites for the disabled.

Washington's mail-in ballots are counted using optical or digital scanning equipment. The paper ballots can also be hand-counted if an election is challenged. There are various security measures and procedures used in handling the mail-in ballots, says Washington State Secretary of State Sam Reed. That includes matching the signature on a mail-in-vote envelope with the signature in voter registration records.

Even before the all-mail-in voting option was offered to Washington State counties, "so many voters were already voting by mail," says Reed. Because of that, he says he felt he couldn't justify spending taxpayer money on new voting equipment.

While touch-screen e-voting systems are available for the state's disabled, Reed admits he had reservations about rolling out DRE statewide for all voters. Studies by voter advocacy groups like Black Box, which demonstrate how e-voting systems can be hacked, made him nervous, Reed says. "Various groups expressed concern, so many local officials choose to go vote by mail instead," he says.

Washington State counties are saving about 15% in costs on their mail-in voting compared to their onsite polling of the past.

While Washington State counties have until Sept. 29 to certify the votes from its primary election on Sept. 19, election officials say things "went smoothly" with the mail-in voting and the touch-screen systems used by the disabled.

Despite the good report cards that some officials are giving e-voting systems, and despite DeGregorio's predictions for Web-based voting in the future, some people are unconvinced that digitized voting deserves any future at all.

E-voting is "not ready for prime time yet and may never be ready," says Holly Jacobson, co-director of Voter Action, an advocacy group that has filed suits against several states planning to use DRE systems. Jacobson insists her group's members "are not luddites," but rather people "who want to stop the trend in the wholesale privatization of American elections."

How do you vote? Is e-voting here to stay? Do you think you'll be voting over the Web anytime soon?

Let me know what you think.

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