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National Issues

Voting Machine Mess Can't Just Be Fixed by Congressional Bills PDF  | Print |  Email
By Norman Ornstein, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute   
November 27, 2007

"The vendors in the system, from Diebold to Sequoia to ES&S, have reacted to every criticism from computer scientists, lawmakers and others by stonewalling and dissembling, not because they are evil but because any hassles affect a bottom line that is enhanced only by selling machines and moving on."


One of the issues left hanging as Congress is off on recess is the Holt bill to require voter-verifiable paper trails on all voting machines. Despite a robust number of co-sponsors, the bill remains mired in controversy, in part because of the opposition of sizable numbers of election officials who, after having sunk a bundle of money into touch-screen machines after the passage of the Help America Vote Act, are not inclined to change (and are also worried about deadlines and technical glitches).


The drive to create a paper trail has come about because of the widespread public and expert unease with existing electronic machines. It should make Congress think more broadly about why these machines have bred such unhappiness and distrust.


Tens of millions of Americans every day use ATMs for financial transactions, opening up their assets to potential fraud and abuse without any question or trepidation. Once or twice a year, tens of millions of Americans use touch-screen machines that are close cousins of ATMs to vote--but these machines are under serious siege, with public interest groups, lawmakers, prominent computer scientists and many election officials questioning their accuracy, security and legitimacy.


Why the difference? The basic answer is in the different markets. ATMs are very costly machines, required to provide the combination of convenience of use, reliability of service and ironclad security guarantees. Banks and other financial institutions are willing to lay out the money because they save by eliminating layers of tellers and other personnel, and because they need ATMs to compete in the marketplace. There are enough machines, and enough turnover in them, to create real incentives for top-flight companies to improve them and hone the technology on a regular basis.

The voting machine market is a limited one; once jurisdictions buy machines, they have little incentive (and usually even less financial wherewithal) to replace them on a regular basis, the way most of us regularly replace our computers or cell phones.


None of those conditions applies to elections and voting machines. The voting machines are costly, but each is only a tiny fraction of the cost of an ATM. Local and state governments have no real incentive to lay out a fortune for a bevy of machines that, unlike ATMs, which are used every day, are only used once or twice a year. It is in some ways the same dynamic as cities like Washington, D.C., that have no incentive to stockpile expensive trucks and plows for snow removal when the snow may occur once or twice a winter; better and more cost-effective to tolerate the infrequent if intense howls of outrage from citizens when their streets aren't plowed for days.


Read the Entire Article at the American Enterprise Institute

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Help America Vote Act (HAVA)
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