In 2000, a new phrase entered the American lexicon. Two little words—"hanging chad"—came to represent a nationwide crisis of faith in elections, the foundation of democracy.
That year, the tight presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush boiled down to Florida—a swing state where the close election revealed a host of voting problems. At the center of the controversy, Palm Beach County voters faced long lines at the polls, only to pull back the curtains on baffling butterfly ballots. Confused by a design that listed candidates' names haphazardly, many Floridians unintentionally voted against their preferred candidate by punching the wrong place on the ballot. Excess waste from these punches then clogged machines, causing them to break down or to leave infamous—and ambiguous—hanging chads on the ballot. The ensuing recount was a public relations disaster.
Florida's outdated election laws didn't specify how to resolve recount disputes, so both sides accused each other of interpreting and counting votes in ways that benefited their party's nominees. A month of bitter contention culminated in the halls of the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices ruled 5-4 in favor of Bush.
The fallout in Florida surprised many Americans. After all, the concept sounds so simple: one person, one vote. Doug Jones wasn't shocked, though. In fact, the UI associate computer science professor knew that hanging chads—and other voting machine failures—were just a nightmare waiting to happen.
"Having secure and honest elections is a cornerstone of our democracy and a national security issue." - Doug Jones
Jones began working on elections 18 years ago—almost by accident. That's when he responded to the Iowa secretary of state's plea for tech-savvy volunteers who could inspect complex voting machines potentially destined for county governments. After accepting a position on the Iowa Board of Examiners for Voting Machines and Electronic Voting Systems, Jones began to uncover alarming problems with the technology that others had overlooked. Soon, his volunteer effort to improve the voting process became a full-time pursuit—and now polling officials around the world call on his expertise to help their elections run as smoothly as possible.
"Voting is an area in which we should not be making compromises," Jones writes in his new book, Broken Ballots. "Having secure and honest elections is a cornerstone of our democracy and a national security issue."
Fair and accurate elections may be the ideal, but after more than two centuries of vote-casting in the United States, the UI professor finds the process to be as flawed and complicated as ever. First it was paper ballots. Then came the lever machine, the optical scan, the punch card, and the electronic voting machine. Although technology was meant to help improve elections, it's led to technical glitches, potential fraud, and a lack of transparency in how votes are interpreted and tallied.
Twelve years after the 2000 election brought these problems to the forefront, many concerns remain unresolved. With the election system vulnerable to another meltdown in 2012, the biggest issue on the ballot this November may be: Will your vote count?
Jones takes that question seriously in his research and in Broken Ballots, which he co-authored with former IBM Research scientist Barbara Simons. "The state of the voting system today is a national scandal," Simons says. "We need to reform the way we conduct elections in the United States and awaken the American public to this critical issue."
Jones helped sound the wakeup call prior to the 2000 elections. As chair of the Iowa Board of Examiners, he received national attention when he posted on a prominent computing risk forum the problems he saw with U.S. regulation of voting technology. He even explained how it was possible to rig a national election. In the months following the Florida debacle, Jones testified before the United States Civil Rights Commission, the House Science Committee, and the Federal Election Commission on the problems with voting technology.
His testimony was reminiscent of a landmark report titled Election Administration in the United States, in which former Berkeley political science professor Joseph P. Harris declared, "There is probably no other phase of public administration in the United States which is so badly managed as the conduct of elections. Every investigation or election contest brings to light glaring irregularities, errors, misconduct on the part of election officers, disregard of election laws and instructions, slipshod practices, and downright fraud."
Harris wrote that scathing report in 1934. Nearly 80 years later, Jones and Simons say the American voting process is still inaccurate, unreliable, and insecure—while elections are closer than ever, with more at stake. Although machines avoid the human error and bias rampant in earlier elections, they run the risk of software errors, power outages, and rigging. "We let the judgment of a machine replace the judgment of a human," says Jones, "but is that good or bad?"
The answer is not clear-cut. Whether exercising their democratic rights in major metropolises or sleepy farm towns, Americans regularly cast their ballots for more issues and officials than voters anywhere else on Earth. The U.S. has more than 3,000 counties and 5,000 election jurisdictions—and voting methods often vary from county to county and state to state. This diversity protects the system against central fraud, but it also causes difficulties in verifying state and national election results. The fastest way to tally votes is to leave the math up to the machines.
Unfortunately, many election officials lack the technical expertise to know whether such results can be trusted. When Jones served on the Iowa Board of Examiners, he encountered pushy, commission-based salesmen who left county representatives without any real assurance that the technology worked correctly. Even machines that passed inspections by the manufacturer and the federally approved testing laboratories sometimes failed to meet Jones' standards. He once discovered a software error that would reveal to each user how the previous voter had voted, violating voters' rights to a secret ballot.
Although the error was unintentional, it highlights the systems' vulnerability to deliberate rigging. Jones recalls a recent experiment by California computer scientist Ka-Ping Yee, who created a simple voting system with less than 500 lines of computer code. Yee inserted four bugs that could alter election outcomes and then put his system out for examination by some of the brightest computer scientists in the business. Each of the experts found at least one of the bugs; not one detected all four.
As most electronic voting machines contain hundreds of thousands of lines of code, Jones says the technology could easily be hacked without detection. That's why the authors of Broken Ballots recommend that vote counting be subject to audits based on evidence that is independent of the software.
Jones and Simons also warn about the hacking threat that looms large in Internet and email voting. Though most states offer this form of ballot casting to overseas and military voters, Simons calls it "fundamentally insecure" because of susceptibility to computer viruses and malware attacks. As a member of the security peer review group for the U.S. Department of Defense, Simons co-authored a 2004 report on the high risks involved in online elections that prompted the department to end its Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE). She also recalls a 2010 Internet voting pilot test in Washington, D.C., in which a University of Michigan team demonstrated the Web's weaknesses by remotely altering the outcome of a test election. D.C. voters who logged into the mock election page may have suspected something was wrong when the Michigan fight song blared from their computer speakers.
Internet voting may be downright dangerous, but traditional polling places have their own share of problems. In many places, elderly volunteers working through the night at the polls to count votes by hand are becoming redundant as officials turn to electronic voting machines that don't provide a paper trail. Even in districts that use paper ballots, poll officials usually settle for instant results instead of conducting audits and recounts.
Aging machines also become a nationwide concern when they break down on poll workers without a backup plan or the knowledge to fix them. Though a downturned economy has led many states to cut their budgets, Simons believes money spent on improving the election process is a wise investment. She says, "We shouldn't try to get democracy on the cheap."
Lately, state and federal lawmakers have made significant reforms in an effort to avoid the pitfalls of the 2000 election. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which provided officials with $4 billion to spend on new voting systems. Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, 03BA, says the legislation enabled Iowa to move towards a system completely backed by paper ballots. Still, Jones says that some states rushed to spend the money without researching the most reputable machines. Florida replaced its punch card machines with electronic systems that put an end to the notorious hanging chad. After a fiasco with those machines in 2006, Florida switched to the kind of paper-based systems used in Iowa.
Of the machines currently used in the U.S., Jones gives the highest marks to the ones that use an optical scanner to read ballots and tally results. After filling in the circles next to their selections, voters place their completed ballots into a machine that scans their results and instantly spits out forms with incorrect markings. Based on technology that former UI education professor E.F. Lindquist, 27PhD, developed to score standardized tests, the machine allows voters to correct their mistakes before leaving the polling place.
In a report titled Counting Votes 2012 , the Verified Voting Foundation recently evaluated the nation's election system. It assessed each state on whether it keeps paper records of votes and electronic overseas ballots, has a backup plan in case voting machines fail, reconciles voter lists with ballot totals, and conducts a post-election audit. Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina ranked among the least-prepared states, while Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont, and Wisconsin boasted the best election systems. Iowa received a "generally good" rating—praised for its paper records, but marked down for its overseas ballot return process and lack of post-election audits.
"It’s important to stand up for your beliefs, and casting your ballot is the way to do it." Matt Schultz
With hundreds of millions of votes expected to be cast this November, can we rely on technology to help determine our country's next leader? Though every system has its weaknesses, UI associate political professor Tracy Osborn doesn't anticipate the country's voting machines will cause any widespread problems this year. "I think cases of voter fraud are few and far between and that most poll workers are volunteers who do the best they can," she says. "There are always going to be problems, but in general, people can go to the polls with confidence."
Schultz also offers cautious praise for technological advances that have largely helped improve the process, citing such developments as a cell phone app that allows Iowans to register to vote and find their polling places. "Technology makes it easier to vote and provides more opportunities," he says, "but I still feel it's important to have a paper ballot."
According to Schultz, four Iowa state house races and two state senate races last election season were determined by 100 votes or less. With such narrow margins of victory becoming more common nationwide, he says, "It's important to stand up for your beliefs, and casting your ballot is the way to do it."
Despite the weaknesses that Jones and Simons have revealed in the nation's voting systems, they also emphasize the value of participating in the upcoming election. Jones stresses that people need to do their part to bring transparency, accountability, and integrity to vote counting.
The Broken Ballots authors urge concerned voters to take advantage of the democratic process and speak out for smarter election reform. "We have a myth that we've been deliberately selling ourselves for centuries that we're the greatest democracy on earth—and quite likely we are," says Jones, "but we're only successful living up to that myth when we insist on it."
In other words, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." And a successful election.
For some people in this year’s elections, voting problems may have nothing to do with technology.
This year, nearly 40 states have enacted new voter identification laws and other restrictions that critics say could disenfranchise as many as five million eligible voters. In addition, many states plan to update voter rolls by comparing personal information stored in various state and federal databases. Such laws are designed to prevent fraud, but critics claim they may also target minority, poor, and young voters who are less likely to carry government-issued IDs. UI associate professor and elections expert Doug Jones questions whether the cost of disenfranchising this many voters outweighs the benefit of preventing a few fraudulent votes.
Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, 03BA, supports these measures to maintain the integrity of the election process and believes they can—and should—be passed without disenfranchising a single legal voter. In July, he enacted emergency administrative rules to obtain access to a federal database that would help Iowa confirm whether more than 1,000 of its registered voters are actually ineligible due to non-citizenship.
Iowa’s chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and League of United Latin American Citizens recently challenged Schultz on the move’s legality, but Democratic Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller supported the Republican at an August press conference.
“We’re working together here to make sure that people who are not eligible to vote don’t vote,” he said. “But just as important, we’re also making sure that we have extra safeguards in place to protect the rights of those who are entitled to vote.”