Voting Technology in the U.S. : The Lost Decade

The irony.

At the very end of the 20th century, the United States was poised to revolutionize voting forever. After centuries of voting only at the polling place and often on insecure and inadequate paper ballot systems, the Internet was about to change all that.
The notion of voting online, and all the benefits that it would bring, was occurring to more than a few election officials and developers of online technology. After all, everything else in our lives was rapidly going digital and paperless. Voting would be no different.

Several states began to trial online voting pilots, particularly for absentee voting. Arizona offered online voting in 1999. That’s right, thirteen years ago online voting already existed.

DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) terminals at the polling place were phasing out antiquated punch card and optical scan systems throughout the country. While electronic voting at the polling place was better than voting on paper, online voting held the most promise.

One online voting system was developed by the Defense Department (DOD) to be used by overseas military voters. Everyone understood that the first place online voting could have an impact was with these voters. Paper absentee ballots are inadequate enough for domestic voters. For military personnel stationed around the world, going through the process of mailing paper ballots is often daunting enough to drive them to not vote.

The first DOD pilot project was called VOI (Vote Over the Internet) and it was launched in 2000. It was so successful that the DOD later launched SERVE (Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment) in 2004. In all technical trials, SERVE performed flawlessly as well.

Yes, at the dawn of the new millenium the future of voting in America was clearly going to be online. It looked like a bright future.

Then came Bush v. Gore and the election of 2000.

We know what happened. Archaic is too kind of a word to describe the punch card ballots with the famous “hanging chads”. The same is true for the butterfly paper ballots used in Palm Beach County, Florida. These ballots caused holocaust survivers to vote for Pat Buchanan for President instead of Al Gore. These confusing pieces of paper handed the election to George Bush.

Suddenly the subject of voting technology, always a very wonkish one which drew no public interest for generations, was all the rage. Congress acted and passed HAVA (Help America Vote Act). Election infrastructure had to be modernized and everyone knew what that meant. Digital voting was in. Paper was out.

HAVA began to accelerate the modernization of our voting after Bush v. Gore. It was clear that online voting would be coming soon. Everyone seemed to feel that was a good thing.

Well, not everyone.

Unfortunately, what HAVA also brought was the opportunity for some folks to soon claim that we were rushing toward disaster by modernizing our voting systems “too fast”. What HAVA also brought was an opportunity for money to be made, as happens with any legislation that injects money into a process of change.

The Hijacking.

Within a very short time after the 2000 election some players emerged in the “discussion” over voting technology who remain key players against digital voting today. There appeared a well-organized and well-funded campaign against digital voting of every kind. This included DRE’s but most epecially was aimed at online voting.

A moral panic was successfully created over the security of digital voting. In 2006 the movie “Hacking Democracy” appeared, in which a computer scientist with limited cybersecurity skills was paid to supposedly hack a Diebold DRE machine.

In the swing state of Ohio in the 2004 election, turnout on the Democratic side was very high, and many polling places were unable to accomodate the crowds of voters. Some precincts had NINE-HOUR-LONG lines. Many eligible voters never voted at all.

Yet the Black Box folks told us that the real problem in Ohio was not the limits of the polling places, which disenfranchised thousands of voters. Instead they told us that the digital machines used in the election were “rigged”. “Hacking Democracy” offered a very scary portrait of digital voting.

The fact that there was no real evidence whatsoever that the tally of votes in Ohio was flawed got ignored. Exit polling showed no discrepencies. The fact that the real problem was the age-old one of inadequate access, not “hacked” tallies, was also ignored.

Also in 2004, opponents of digital voting successfully killed the DOD SERVE online voting system in its tracks when they were asked to participate in a panel to objectively review the system. They were included in the panel because of their known opposition to digital voting. Still, they agreed to be part of a single “joint” report regardless of whether “pro” or “con” was in the majority. These opponents broke that agreement, and ran to the NY Times with a MINORITY report of their own, trashing the SERVE system and declaring it insecure with no facts to back up the claim. After a lot of public panic, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz killed the project.

Dr. Kelleher covers the demise of SERVE in depth in his book, “Internet Voting Now”.

ALSO at the same time in 2004, one of the opponents on that SERVE committee, Barbara Simons, also tried to take over the leadership of the country’s premier voter advocacy group – The League of Women Voters. She did so by attacking (with the help of the black box folks) the league’s position supporting the modernization of voting technology. She specifically targeted the President of the League, Kay Maxwell, and attacked her personally, charging her with “turning over our democracy to hackers”. She ran a campaign for President on a “paper trail platform”, complete with a lot of ginned up anger over electronic voting. While unsuccessful in her Presidential coup of the LWV, Ms. Simons successfully scared the League into condemning digital voting and only supporting paper ballot voting. This change in position, for an organization born of suffrage, is a blight on its reputation and history. This was all thanks to Barbara Simons and her technophobic colleagues.

In fact LWV President Maxwell had visionary clarity regarding what digital voting could offer to the American electorate. Her 2005 address to the Commission on Federal Election Reform is a moving window into the kind of world we COULD have entered in the last decade. A world that provides maximum access to all voters is the world Kay Maxwell envisioned in 2005. She knew it was in our grasp. I highly encourage all my readers to read President Maxwell’s address in its entirety.

All of the digital voting bashers from back then, from Barbara Simons to David Jefferson, Avi Rubin and others, were successful beyond their wildest dreams at derailing America’s move toward modernized voting. The term “paper trail” became synonymous with “data trail”. States have moved from lever machines BACKWARD to overly expensive optical scan paper ballots, which are an absolute horror show. All of this has happened due to the success of the moral panic.

The same crowd dominates all discussion about voting technology today. The media even calls them “experts” on election technology, even though they are anything but. The real election administration experts were driven out by the moral panic crowd a decade ago.

Meanwhile across the rest of the world and in the private sector, where there has been no moral panic to poison progress, online elections are taking place with no technical problems and great success at boosting turnout.

Here we have had a lost decade.

We can not change the past. Will we change the future?

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