E-voting impacts U.S. election cliffhanger, say experts

The U.S. presidential election cliffhanger wouldn’t be half as suspenseful if it were for electronic voting technology, said European experts on “e-voting” who were closely watching the U.S. vote.

All eyes were on the U.S. state of Florida Wednesday, where a ballot recount could decide the election for either George W. Bush or Al Gore by a razor-thin margin.

More than once after the polls closed Tuesday, news media were forced to change their predictions about the state’s result: first they said Gore was ahead, then Bush, and then they resorted to calling the election still undecided.

Much of that uncertainty was caused because only some precincts in Florida use electronic vote-counting technology, said Alex Folkes, press and campaigns officer for the U.K. Commission on Electoral Reform.

“It’s a lot more of the richer precincts that have it. This is why, especially in Florida, you’ve got the more Bush-friendly precincts reporting first – they can just push the switch and get the votes out. But the bigger, poorer precincts were by and large reporting later. That’s why Gore started pulling back ahead. More of the hand-counted ballots started coming in.”

“Of course you would have 100 per cent accuracy with electronic voting. That would prevent the necessity of a recount,” said Hans van Wijk, who markets electronic voting systems for the Dutch company Nedap NV. In the Netherlands, some 80 per cent of precincts use e-voting, he said.

“Mechanical counting is not very accurate, so they need recounts. And then there’s a lot of voting done on paper and then put through a scanner – you also have a rather high inaccuracy. And then of course there are absentee votes by mail, which gives doubtful results as well, because in filling in a paper somebody can put his vote a little bit beside the line, and everybody is wondering if it’s a valid vote or not.”

Speed must always take a back seat to accuracy when it comes to electronic voting, said spokesman Conor Falvey of the Irish Department of Environment and Local Government, which is examining various voting systems in preparation for a trial run in the next general elections, probably in 2002. “You can be sure that if the Irish government are going to commit to running a pilot project, they will want to be as sure as they can humanly be that the system is secure and will deliver a valid result. That will be of absolutely paramount consideration.”

But Irish electronic security company Baltimore Technologies PLC said reliability is no problem. “Online voting would not only dramatically reduce the count time, but also ensure a more reliable initial result,” said spokeswoman Evanna Kearins. She added that online voting would help older, ill, and disabled voters to take part in the polls.

For now, though, electronic voting technology is still a question of updating the equipment used at polling places. Voting via the Internet is still a long way off, said Folkes. Questions of security and hacking need to be answered, as well as issues of voter integrity.

“Who is actually casting the vote? It’s one thing to issue code numbers or code words, but the apathetic can give them away or sell them, and we can’t allow this. The other issue is pressure: it may be me casting my vote, but who is standing behind me? In a regular election, no one is allowed into the voting booth with you,” Folkes said.

Nedap, in Groenlo, Netherlands, can be reached at http://www.nedap.nl/. Baltimore, in Dublin, can be reached at http://www.baltimore.com/.