THE BLOG

Election Systems Upgrade: Money's Gone To Iraq

This article is not about the absurd complexity of our current election system, although that topic is just as worthy of consideration. It is about exploring the possibility that we severely underfund the election process in the United States, leading to myriad potential and actual problems, while spending dearly overseas to bring democracy to other nations.

Bringing democracy to Iraq will end up costing America trillions of dollars, according to some estimates. In the wake of the 2000 election and its butterfly ballots, the federal government took the unprecedented step of allocating nearly $4 billion to help pay for new voting systems across the country with the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA).

"The Help America Vote Act, which is what provided a lot of the money to buy the technologies that we use today, authorized a few billion dollars... to buy new voting machines," said Edward Felten, a Princeton University computer science professor who demonstrated that electronic voting machines are vulnerable to hacking. "At the federal level, on the scale of spending for the federal government, that's pretty small. I mean, obviously it's a lot of money, but compared to the amount of money that the federal government spends on a lot of things, that seems like a bargain."

While the amount spent on Iraq blows away the amount spent on U.S. elections, there were a number of other reasons for going into Iraq, such as WMDs and Saddam Hussein. HAVA's $4 billion isn't all we're spending on elections at home, either. States and local governments also spend heavily each time we vote -- we often hear the vociferous complaints of secretaries of state when there's a last minute change and a few million bucks go down the drain reprinting ballots. But, at the end of the day, we are still spending less on elections -- a bedrock of our prized democracy -- than on a multitude of other no doubt important government services.

"Election operations traditionally come at the end of the line after police and fire and healthcare," said Chris Riggall, spokesman for Premier Election Solutions, the voting machine company previously known as Diebold Election Systems.

How do Americans feel about our elections? According to pollster Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports, only about half feel they are "fair to voters."

"In the 1990s, most Republicans said the elections were not fair," he said. "Then, after George Bush got elected, we asked the same question and we still got the same 50 percent answer -- the only difference was now it was Democrats who were more likely to say the elections were not fair. So there's an instinctive reaction of most people when their candidate loses to believe that something must be wrong with the process."

Those figures, despite Rasmussen's explanation, are less than encouraging and stayed relatively stable through 2006. But Felten believes some progress is being made.

"I think we're moving slowly in the right direction," he said. "In 2008, fewer voters will be voting on the really risky technologies than in past elections. Still, they'll be more voters voting on those technologies than there should be -- the number that there should be is zero -- but we are moving slowly in the right direction I think. The best systems have paper trails and some kind of post-election audit. Even in places where we're using riskier technologies, there is more care being taken procedurally, which lowers the exposure a bit."

HAVA may have been perceived by some as an improvement, with the federal government finally taking interest in funding elections. However, the allocation of those funds encouraged many election officials to migrate to electronic, touch-screen voting machines. At least in their early stages, these technologies made experts like Felten uneasy.

"I think in the short run [electronic voting systems] made the process less secure," he said. "But I think that's not inherent. I think that there are ways of using computers in elections along with paper records in the right way that actually could lead to systems better than we've had in the past."

Premiere's parent company, Diebold, Inc., is known in part for its automated teller machines. It may come as a surprise to some (but probably not to the 50 percent who do not consider our elections "fair") that the average ATM costs more than the typical touch screen voting machine. After all, is the security of a vote really more important than the security of a bank's money?

"An ATM is significantly a more expensive device than a voting terminal..." said Riggall. "Were you to develop something that was as robust as an ATM, both in terms of the physical engineering of it and all aspects, clearly that would be something that the average jurisdiction cannot afford."

Perhaps cost has something to do with the fact that a couple of years ago, every single Diebold AccuVote TS could be opened with a standard key also used for some cabinets and mini-bars and available for purchase over the Internet.

To be fair, Riggall pointed out a number of distinctions between the functions of ATMs and voting machines, and acknowledged that increased security is possible -- but at too steep a price for many election administrators.

"We design products... like anybody else in any industry, to fulfill market demand," he said.

The ideal situation in terms of elections security would be impractical, according to Riggall.

"The most secure election I can envision would be one in which every voter comes to a bank vault with armed security and has a retinal scan -- and I'm obviously being facetious here -- but where you had layer upon layer of physical, procedural as well as electronic systems security, and in that sort of scenario, while you couldn't alleviate every potential claim, you would eliminate many of the potential vulnerabilities," he said.

While we aren't anywhere close to making that scenario a reality, some progress is being made in terms of security improvements, ranging from "more robust locks" to voter-verifiable paper trails.

"It does increase the cost, but airbags increase the cost of cars and yet consumers want them so manufacturers now put not just one airbag or two but five or seven," he said.

As if we aren't already spending little enough on elections, pollster Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports recalls reading a blog suggesting we forgo the "costly" elections process altogether and just use polls to decide who gets to take office.

"I did see some blog post this year [that] said they should save all the money and just let us decide who the next president would be," he said. "And when I saw that post my first reaction was to kind of chuckle. My second reaction was, 'You know, that's the last thing I'd want to be responsible for.'"

But perhaps the problem is not a lack of funds, but rather a misallocation of the money that does get spent.

"Public officials bought all these machines in the first place and why they've been slow to back away from them I think is a pretty interesting case study in how public policy can go wrong," said Felten, referring to the touch screen machines he discovered had vulnerabilities. "And the explanation has something to do with budgets, it has something to do with the political process, it has something to do with how this whole process is organized."

Regardless of how the funds are allocated, comparing the amount spent administering elections to other government expenditures can lead to a disturbing realization -- that we just aren't spending enough on our democracy.

"It all depends what you compare it to," said Felten. "If you compare the amount of money we spend actually administering the election versus the amount that's spent trying to convince people to vote this way or that way, it looks pretty small. It you compare it against the importance of getting the outcome right, it also looks relatively small. So, to me, it's an investment that we should be willing to make."

Bringing democracy to the people of Iraq is certainly an admirable goal, but with dwindling public support for the war effort, securing our own elections first is a policy we should all be able to agree on.