Oct. 28, 2008 at 8:00 AM ET
The headline for voting technology 2008 might be this: Back where we started. Back to paper ballots, that is.
For the first time since touch-screen voting was invented, use of the high-tech voting machines has declined sharply. On Nov. 4, the majority of Americans will be filling out their ballots using old-fashioned paper and No. 2 pencils.
But it's been a long-strange trip back to the beginning. The gyrations of America's voting rituals began with hanging chads in 2000. Then came the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which set aside $3 billion to upgrade America's antiquated ballot system. Then came the gold rush towards space-aged, touch screen electronic voting systems. Next, computer scientists uncovered multiple security flaws in electronic vote machines, with the controversy culminating in an HBO film called "Hacking Democracy."
That was enough for election officials in California, Florida, Maryland, and several other states that have placed their pricey touch-screen machines in moth balls. Most have returned to a system that relies -- at least in part -- on pencils.
According to Election Data Services, nearly 10 million fewer ballots will be cast on electronic voting systems this year than in 2006. Then, 38 percent of the electorate was registered in districts that used touch-screen systems; today, only 33 percent do.
"When you think of the alternatives, you could go with flawed machines or just shift people off of them and encourage people to go back to old-fashioned methods," said security researcher Herbert Thompson of People Security, a critic of some electronic voting systems.
The retreat from technology, however, shouldn't be overstated. While 56 percent Americans live in a district where voters will fill out paper ballots on Nov. 4, those ballots will be counted by optical scan readers – a system that is a hybrid between paper and computers.
Optical scanning machines have won the day, at least in 2008. Since 2006, 86 districts have changed voting systems -- all moving to optical readers. But Kimball Brace of Election Data Systems states that, despite the current trend, touch-screen systems have not fallen completely out of favor.
"This isn't a settled question. … It all depends on what happens," he said. "If we have a close election and or have problems that highlight a certain type of machine, that could have significant impact on what we end up doing in the future."
Problems with touch-screen systems -- known in the industry as DRE or direct-recording electronic machines -- are well documented. A series of confrontations between computer security researchers and voting machine manufacturers left a grey cloud over their ability to ward off hackers. Private manufacturers like Diebold have repeatedly refused to turn over their proprietary software for inspection and audits by academics.
Meanwhile, charges of "vote-switching" at polling places continue. In West Virginia, a handful of early voters claimed this month that their votes had been switched from one candidate to another by touch-screen machines. Some voters caught the error, but others told local newspapers they believe their vote was cast for the wrong person.
Brace said that human error, rather than conspiracy, is likely to blame. Anyone with a touch-screen phone is familiar with the ritual of recalibration that follows a series of misclicks. Also, screens can register touches by hanging sleeves or other incidental contact. Finally, anyone who's ever used an ATM has likely discovered the difficulty of using the machine from an incorrect angle; it's easy to hit the wrong button if you are too tall or too short.
Pencils make mistakes, too
No voting system is perfect, Brace said. And those who worked hard to discredit touch-screen systems may end up lamenting the end result. Paper and pencil, for example, are hardly infallible.
"There are problems with optical scanners, most notably American voters," he said. "They seem to know how to foul up a ballot, particularly when the ballot is piece of paper." Some might circle the candidates they prefer rather than fill in a box, for example, he said.
Thompson, the e-voting critic, also sees problems with paper. Each time a system become popular, he said, it faces greater likelihood of problems.
"These are what we call 'scale-oriented' problems in computer science," Thompson said. "This increased burden on paper increases the chance for a problem."
Complicating matters further for voters is the unprecedented change that's taken place inside the voting booth. No matter what technology is used to cast ballots, change always introduces errors, Brace said. More than 40 percent of voters will encounter a new voting tool this season, given that many voters only cast ballots during presidential election years.
"History shows us that the greatest likelihood of election errors occurs the first time a jurisdiction changes voting systems," Brace said. "While many of these jurisdictions have tested out their procedures in the past four years, it's the voters themselves -- both newly registered and those that haven't voted since 2004 -- that could cause problems this November."
According to an Associated Press survey, 108 voting districts have switched from touch-screen to paper and optical ballots since the last election.
The benefits of touch screen
Brace laments the fall of touch-screen machines, because he says they can do some things better than any other voting technology. They are particularly adept at providing foreign-language ballots or accessible ballots for the blind, for example. And when programmed properly, they can make overvotes -- when a voter accidentally picks two candidates for one office -- impossible. And they provide quick vote tallies.
In larger districts using optical scan readers, the tally machines are generally available right at the polling place, allowing voters to leave with a "receipt" of their ballot and providing near-instant counting when polls close. But in smaller, rural districts, the ballots must be hand-carried to a central optical scanner, which delays the counting.
Barring some surprise event – such as a poor performance by optical scanners – Brace believes touch-screens will slowly disappear from voting booths around the country.
Counties that wanted Help America Vote Act money had to buy new systems by 2006. Many purchased touch-screen systems without fully examining them and are now warehousing the machines, Thompson said.
Without upgrades, there won't be a market for them, but touch-screen machines are unlikely to be fixed any time soon. The federal money that fueled their popularity is gone.
"These problems can be addressed but you need the investment money, and now the manufacturers have no incentive to fix them because there is no money," Thompson said.