TR: Diebold has sold touch-screen machines to Georgia, and has a contract with Maryland?
Dill: Yes. [Note: A Diebold spokesman says these machines use updated source code, different from that posted on the Web.]
TR: What is required to avoid fraud or large-scale errors?
Dill: I wrote the Resolution on Electronic Voting with help from other computer scientists. We tried to make the most general requirement we thought would work. So we asked for a voter-verifiable audit trail-a permanent record made of the vote that the voter can check is accurate, and that is available for a recount. Now, the only way to do that that is proven at this point is to use paper somehow. You can have a fully manual process, in which case the ballot that you fill out is that voter-verifiable audit trail: you have the ability to make sure it’s correct because you’re actually filling it out. The same for an optical-scan ballot or punch card.
With the touch-screen machine, the solution is to add on a voter-verifiable printer. That prints a copy of your vote, and you get a chance to look at it, make sure that it correctly registers your vote, and reject it if it does not. Then that paper record goes into a locked ballot box. It’s important that the voter not be able to take it out of the polling place because that facilitates vote selling or coercion.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with having computers in the process. You just have to do it right. The Help America Vote Act, a national election reform law passed in 2002, says something about a manual audit capacity. And California’s Prop 41 says that the machines have to print paper copies of the ballot either during the election or right after the polls close. The problem with the second solution is, if we go back to the scenario where the voter votes for candidate A, and a vote is recorded for candidate B, anything that’s printed after the polls close cannot be verified by the voter. You’ll end up with a copy of what’s in electronic memory. Your recount is always going to come out the same as your electronic copy, and it will fail to catch errors in recording the votes.
TR: So what is currently the best option?
Dill: It’s a really difficult question because people have a very long wish list for electronic voting-or for any kind of voting. It’s hard to satisfy all of these requirements. But given what I know now, I think the best option is a precinct-based optical-scan system-with some special device such as a touch-screen machine for use by people who cannot use that system. In a precinct-based system, the voter himself puts the ballot into the machine which reads it. The advantage is that the machines can be programmed to reject ballots that have stray marks or too many votes, so that the voters can correct them then and there.
The other option is to go with direct-recording electronic machines with a voter-verifiable printer. I really only have two concerns about that. One is that it is even more expensive than the touch-screen machines, which are pretty expensive. The other concern is that it’s a relatively new idea that hasn’t been tested a lot in actual elections. I think we should have the pioneering counties try it out and then, once we understand how that system works better, consider deploying more machines.
TR: The U.S. Department of Defense has a pilot program using Internet voting to help soldiers stationed abroad vote more easily. Might we all vote that way someday?
Dill: They’ve succeeded in finding the only idea worse than electronic voting in precincts. Even people who disagree with me about touch-screen voting say that Internet voting is a bad idea. I understand the need to make sure that people in the services vote. And I understand the problems they have now with getting absentee ballots. But I think Internet voting is not the right solution. I’m too busy with my particular battle to combat that, but I hope somebody is able to get it killed.