E-voting's big test comes today

Today's general election in the US will be a test for electronic voting machines as well as the presidential candidates.

Today's general election in the US will be a test for electronic voting machines as well as the presidential candidates.

With most national polls showing a statistical dead heat between George Bush and John Kerry, problems with voting technology could play a major role in the election. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have thousands of lawyers ready to descend on areas of voting controversy.

Around 30% of the voting population will use electronic voting machines. Seven of the critical swing states - the big three of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, plus Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico - are among the 27 using e-voting machines.

Will Doherty, executive director of the Verified Voting Foundation, said it could take days for the US to sort out the winning presidential candidate because of potential problems with e-voting machines.

The foundation and other groups critical of e-voting machines say election officials have no way to recheck votes cast on the machines. The machines don't give voters any indication of what's going on inside them, and with paper trails unavailable in most states, voting officials have no way to conduct independent recounts.

"Election officials are not able to show us the work," said Andy Stephenson, associate director of BlackBoxVoting.

Stephenson said that while ballot stuffing was nothing new in US elections, e-voting technology could allow large-scale cheating simply through changing a few lines of code. "It's the scale of the stuffing," he added. "It'd be a hell of a lot harder to do with a million paper votes. It's the economy of scale."

Although voting doesn't open up in all 50 states until today, early voting has been available in several states, and problems with e-voting technology have already been reported, according to the Election Incident Reporting System, operated by the Verified Voting Foundation and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

The 96 separate incidents include 44 in Florida and 20 in Texas. No other state had more than five e-voting problems reported. Among the alleged incidents in Florida so far are voting machines crashing and causing long queues, and voters saying they'd voted for Kerry but the machine showed they voted for Bush during the review process, which allows voters to correct mistakes.

Doherty said that more than 300 volunteers would monitor elections for e-voting problems for the Verified Voting Foundation.

But the Information Technology Association of America, whose members include suppliers of e-voting machines, claimed early e-voting was a "success".

"Returns suggest nothing but the accurate and secure operation of electronic voting machines," said association president Harris Miller. "In fact, what we have seen is that the early voting phenomenon, supported by electronic voting systems, continues to grow. People like it, and they have the opportunity to do it because this innovative technology provides election officials with the ability to support numerous ballot types at precincts set up at shopping malls, government offices and other high traffic areas."

Bob Cohen, the association's senior vice-president, added that most problems with early voting had not been caused by the machines. "The issues have more to do with voter registration and people showing up and not being on the voter logs. Our contention is that e-voting machines are very accurate."

Although there were some reports of computers holding lists of voter registrations crashing in the first days of early voting, that wasn't an issue with e-voting machines, added Cohen. "That's not a voting machine. Certainly, computers crash."

Doherty said that one remedy for voting controversy was a landslide turnout, and some pollsters and political scientists are indeed predicting a record turnout for a presidential election.

"If there's overwhelming turnout for one candidate, the problems with the machines are lessened," said Doherty. "The more people who vote, the less likely there will be problems."

Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service

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