The Angler: Democratic glitch
Red Herring
July 31, 2001

Electronic voting is moving full steam ahead both as a business and as an important component of our political process. Elections company Hart InterCivic, in partnership with PC giant Dell Computer (Nasdaq: DELL), announced a deal just last week with Harris County, Texas; the deal, valued at $25,152,830, is the largest of its kind in U.S. history, according to Hart. But e-voting, while it's starting to make real money, also has some very real problems.

Dell and Hart's eSlate voting tablet is not the only player in the game. It seems that the November 2000 presidential election debacle brought out not just prestigious academics to tackle election matters (MIT and Caltech are in partnership), but also entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs in the electronic voting industry are coming under fire from voting experts skeptical that the systems can be free from fraud and inaccuracy. Still, technological change is not something that can always be derailed. In fact, a slew of companies are getting involved. The Dell-Hart alliance is competing with firms like VoteHere and Sequoia Voting Systems.

VoteHere, which employs the Compaq iPaq as an online voting device, ran a pilot program in a May 15 election in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Sequoia says it has its touch-screen technology in 15 states, including Virginia, New York, and Colorado.

The Dell-Hart deal in Harris County is a significant development in this space; Harris County is the third largest in the nation, encompassing the Houston metropolitan area. The eSlate tablet should be installed for the November 2002 elections (it will be tested or used in smaller stages in November 2001 and March 2002).

Even though we are fans of technological innovation, the Angler does harbor some reservations. It is important that we are not flippant in applying new technology to a complex problem like election inaccuracy.

Bruce Schneier, founder and chief technical officer of Counterpane Internet Security, sees five necessary attributes for secure voting technology: anonymity, scalability, speed, audit, and accuracy. Mr. Schneier writes that "in the rush to improve the first four attributes, accuracy has been sacrificed."

The main problem with many of the e-voting systems is they don't provide a paper trail. Electronic voting expert Peter Neumann, principal scientist at SRI International's Computer Science Laboratory in Menlo Park, says, "An independent, voter-verified physical record audit trail of the ballot image is the only foreseeable way of giving any credibility and demonstrable evidence of the absence of fraud and error in completely electronic voting systems."

Rebecca Mercuri of Bryn Mawr College, a noted expert in election technology, agrees. At an event at the National Press Club in January, Ms. Mercuri called the current state of election software a "Pandora's box." She continued, "Some years down the road the box will open to reveal yet another election fiasco, but this time instead of hanging chad, we will have disappearing electrons."

The nation's trust in democracy depends on an accurate election system. As such, entrepreneurs in electronic voting would be wise to treat e-voting as more than a way to make money.

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