With the US presidential election fast approaching, there is a lot of talk about candidates, policy platforms and running mates. But there is a subtext to all of the hype: come election day, how will everyone's vote be counted? A report just published by Datamonitor says that voting-machine vendors must work to maintain public confidence in their products, and help combat negative perceptions of electronic voting. The report predicts that optical-scan voting machines will continue to be widely adopted; although its widespread implementation is a long way off, internet voting will complement - rather than replace - voting at the polling station.
Elections in the 21st century have become very technology-dependent occasions and electronic voting undoubtedly brings a number of benefits to the election process. However, there has been a lot of negative press around the reliability and security of these systems. Going forward, vendors will need to take steps to build confidence in their products, and counter the criticism coming from those opposed to voting machines.
Electronic voting machines have seen a rapid uptake in countries around the world. Western European countries such as the UK and the Netherlands have used electronic voting systems in binding elections, Brazil and India have instituted electronic voting with relatively little controversy, and Estonia recently became the first country to allow its citizens to vote over the internet.
Perhaps the most high-profile uptake of electronic voting has been in the US. Following the controversy during the 2000 presidential election over poorly designed paper ballots that put voter intent into question, Congress passed legislation calling on states to upgrade their voting equipment. This gave rise, virtually overnight, to a market for electronic voting systems in the US.
Voting machines have provided a number of benefits to the election process. For example, direct-recording electronic machines can be equipped with audio or tactile devices that allow disabled citizens to cast ballots independently. In addition, they also help conduct elections in a more efficient and cost-effective manner, such as reducing the costs associated with printing ballots and hiring extra polling staff. At the end of a long election day, a voting machine can spit out election tallies much quicker and more accurately than overworked and tired polling station staff, especially when they are counting complex ballots by hand.
Beyond the polling station, some countries have implemented binding internet voting on a limited basis. Such systems have been used in a number of places, such as Estonia and Switzerland, and in the 2008 US election a county in Florida is running a pilot for its military voters living abroad. However, it will be some time before the internet becomes a commonplace voting channel; even then, it is likely to serve as an additional option to voting at a local polling station, rather than becoming the primary method itself.
In recent years, there has been something of a backlash against paperless touch-screen systems, due to concerns about the lack of a verifiable record of the voter's intention, and there is still a lot of resistance among the public to the use of technology to count votes. After some of the recent tests, which demonstrated potential security vulnerabilities with touch-screen systems, most election officials are proceeding cautiously.
Electronic voting machines are only as secure as the processes which govern their use. The key to a successful election is ensuring that well-trained poll workers and election staff follow well-established procedures, before, on and after the election. A jurisdiction could use the most secure voting machines in the world, but they would be vulnerable to malicious behavior without proper security procedures governing their use.
As partners in ensuring the conduct of democratic elections and, with the industry at a pivotal stage, there is a very real need for vendors to work closely with election officials and computer scientists to ensure that the technology they are supplying is used in a secure manner. This course of action is in vendors' best interests if they want to keep their voting machines from getting into the headlines for the wrong reasons. Democracy depends on transparency; the more transparent electronic voting becomes, the more likely it is to be adopted and embraced by the voting public.