Check That Vote

July 15, 2008

The New York Times Editorial

Electronic voting is notoriously vulnerable to technical glitches and vote theft. By now, most states have passed good laws requiring paper records of every vote cast — an important safeguard. But that is not enough. States also need strong audit laws to ensure that machine totals are vigilantly checked against the paper records. That is the only way that voters will be able to trust electronic voting.

Computer scientists have shown that it is easy to tamper with electronic voting machines in ways that are all but impossible to detect. The machines also make mistakes on their own. Just this month, the elections supervisor of Palm Beach County, Fla., apologized after machines there failed to count 14 percent of the votes cast in a city commission election.

The answer is voter-verifiable paper trails: paper records of each vote cast that voters can check to ensure that their preferences were accurately recorded. When these paper records are created, malfunctioning or dishonest machines can then be detected by a careful audit that compares the electronic vote totals with the votes recorded on paper.

Unfortunately, states don’t require such scrupulous audits. A 2007 study co-authored by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that most of the 38 states with voter-verifiable paper trails did not even require audits after every election. The states that do have audits do them inadequately.

Florida has a particularly flawed audit law — not a comforting thought given its recent history. Counties are required to audit only one randomly selected race on the ballot. It is ridiculous to have an audit law that does not require checking the votes for president.

Florida’s law also calls for audits to be conducted only after an election is certified. That means that even if the audit shows serious problems, it will be difficult to change the outcome of the election.

It’s easy to pick on Florida — and it deserves the criticism — but the problem is a national one. All states should require audits of all major races before election results are certified. They should require that a sufficiently large percentage of the ballots be checked to be statistically meaningful. States also need clear guidelines for what they will do — to investigate, and if necessary set aside flawed results — when a significant level of error is detected.

Supporters of honest elections won an important victory when a majority of states enacted paper-trail requirements for electronic voting. But those paper trails will have little value unless they are backed up with audits that are able to detect errors and fraud — and to ensure that the candidate who gets the most votes wins.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this nformation for non-profit research and educational purposes only. Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article, nor is Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota endorsed or sponsored by the originator.