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National Issues

Paperless Votes: Will They Decide the Texas Primary? PDF  | Print |  Email
By Sean Flaherty,   
March 01, 2008

The Texas primary on March 4 could be the closest and the most consequential election so far this year in which ballots cast on paperless electronic voting machines are a large portion of the overall vote. The Texas primary may determine the Democratic Party's nominee for President (the Republican nomination campaign is considered essentially over) , but its outcome will not be verifiable due to the extensive use of insecure and unrecountable voting systems. As noted in Verified Voting's snapshot of voting sytems in the four March 4 states, Texas's 254 counties use a large diversity of systems. Around 100 counties use only paper ballots, with most paper ballots being optically scanned and a small number hand-counted. Random manual audits are not done in Texas. Most of the state's larger counties make some use of touch screen direct-recording electronic voting machines, or DREs, and in these counties, touch screen DREs have often been the system used for early voting.

Early voting turnout in Texas has been very high, as the campaign press has reported. In the 15 most populous counties in Texas, as many as 20% of registered voters in both parties combined had already cast their votes by February 29. The early voting turnout in the 15 most largest counties is available at the Secretary of State's website. Of these counties, at least 8 are using only paperless machines for early voting: Dallas, Bexar, Hidalgo, El Paso, Tarrant, Nueces, Galveston, and Montgomery.  By the end of early voting, 10.76% of the registered voters in Dallas County, and 17.85% of the voters in Hidalgo County, voted on the paperless ES&S iVotronic in the Democratic primary alone. 11.65% of the voters in Nueces County, and almost 10.4% in Galveston County voted on paperless Hart eSlate machines in the Democratic primary.

The same may hold true for many of the 123 counties that have both optical scan equipment and DREs. The Texas Secretary of State's office has a good inventory of the voting sytems counties have on hand, but the state's 254 counties use the equipment in often different ways. So at this time, for most counties we do not know whether paper ballots are available in early voting, on election day, or both (please see the March 4 snapshot for updated information). Verified Voting has made contact with all but 22 counties to date, and we have learned that counties use many permutations of voting systems: we have spoken with counties that have central-count optical scanners and DREs, where most voters vote on paper ballots at both early voting sites and election day, and the ballots are scanned at the county office; with counties that have central-count scanners and DREs in which the only paper ballots are the mail absentee ballots; counties that have bought precinct optical scanners and DREs but use only DREs in early voting and on election day; and a handful of counties which own only DREs but where many voters vote on paper ballots that are hand-counted.

The bottom line in the complexity of Texas is that a substantial number of votes in the primary will be cast on paperless DREs, and if the election result is close, the margin of victory will not be recountable. Paperless electronic voting appear is on its way out in America, for good reason. Many of the world's top computer scientists have been warning us for much of this decade that even well-designed paperless electronic voting systems are vulnerable to error and tampering.

Computer scientists have also warned us that the systems currently in use are not well-designed. A partial listing of the expert reports showing that current voting systems are vulnerable to manipulation by a small number of individuals: the 2003 SAIC report, the GAO report of 2005, the 2006 report of the Task Force on Voting System Security at the Brennan Center for Justice, and most recently, the reviews of voting systems commissioned by a number of states, including California, Ohio, and Connecticut. The report of the Brennan Center comes to mind in particular: composed of many of the leading figures in computer science, the task force concluded that a close statewide election could be altered by as few as one to three people.

Of course, paper ballots are the foundation of verifiable voting, but by themselves, they are hardly enough to secure an election. Random hand audits and a reliable chain of custody are necessary, as many of the authorities cited above will tell you. The Brennan Center Task Force puts it best on page 83 of its report: "The value of the paper ballots without the Automatic Routine Audit is highly questionable." It is important to note that none of the four states voting on March 4 will do hand audits. Yet at least in Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont, audits and recounts are possible.

So far this year, a number of states have held primaries in which paperless e-voting is the statewide method of voting, or is used in many counties. Horry County, South Carolina's problems aside, the elections in these paperless states have not caused much concern, because the primaries have happened either not to be very competitive, or, if they were competitive, their results were consistent with the media's and the public's expectations going into election day. John McCain held a small lead in most polls going into South Carolina's paperless primary, and won the Republican primary by 3 points. Barack Obama was expected to win big in South Carolina Democratic primary, and did win big. The paperless states on Super Tuesday, Georgia, New Jersey, and Delaware, Arkansas, and Tennessee, turned out within the range of expectations for the Democrats, and Republican Mike Huckabee's wins in Georgia and Tennessee did not surprise anyone, both because the margins weren't very much outside the range of expectations, and because the dominant story after the Super Tuesday's primaries was John McCain's nationwide standing.

But the Texas primary appears to be very close. It is unacceptable that any of the primary elections in 2008 have been held on unreliable, insecure, and unverifiable voting equipment. Nonetheless, it is particularly disturbing to know the Presidential nomination of either party's candidate may come down to tens or hundreds of thousands of votes cast on paperless e-voting machines.  If the results on Tuesday are a surprise, or if the election is very close, perhaps public scrutiny of electronic voting, which is already high, will intensify and lead to a renewed push for reform. But if the Texas results are not close, or if the results conform to a dominant media narrative about the Presidential race, citizens paying attention should still use the Texas primary as a reminder: the election could have come down to unverifiable electronic votes, and that is not a situation we want to face in November.

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