Electronic Elections: The Perils and Promises of Digital Democracy

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Since the 2000 presidential election, the United States has been embroiled in debates about electronic voting. Critics say the new technologies invite tampering and fraud; advocates say they enhance the accuracy of vote counts and foster greater political participation by making it easier to cast a ballot. Electronic Elections cuts through the media spin to assess the advantages and risks associated with different voting technologies-and shows how e-voting can be the future of American democracy.

Michael Alvarez and Thad Hall fully examine the range of technologies-both old and new- designed to accurately reflect the will of voters. Drawing upon a wealth of data from recent elections nationwide, they evaluate the security issues and voter turnout resulting from various systems. They then argue that the media has emphasized the problems associated with e-voting while virtually ignoring its enormous potential. Offering ways to evaluate, improve, and implement voting technologies, Electronic Elections makes a case for how e-voting can work in the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Electronic Elections summarizes insights [the authors] have gleaned from their extensive experience. The book is meant to instigate scientifically informed election administration. The authors argue for a comparative approach to risk management that considers the costs and benefits of alternative methods. . . . A thoughtful early contribution to a new field of election science."—Walter R. Mebane Jr., Science

"Will the machine lose your vote? Will it be hacked? Political scientists Alvarez and Hall provide a rigorous analysis of electronic voting, and they come down heavily in favor of the benefits of the new technologies, arguing that media coverage has emphasized the problems while downplaying the potential for empowering more citizens to vote."—Michelle Press, Scientific American

Electronic Elections summarizes insights [the authors] have gleaned from their extensive experience. The book is meant to instigate scientifically informed election administration. The authors argue for a comparative approach to risk management that considers the costs and benefits of alternative methods. . . . A thoughtful early contribution to a new field of election science.
— Walter R. Mebane Jr.
Scientific American
Will the machine lose your vote? Will it be hacked? Political scientists Alvarez and Hall provide a rigorous analysis of electronic voting, and they come down heavily in favor of the benefits of the new technologies, arguing that media coverage has emphasized the problems while downplaying the potential for empowering more citizens to vote.
— Michelle Press
Science - Walter R. Mebane Jr.
Electronic Elections summarizes insights [the authors] have gleaned from their extensive experience. The book is meant to instigate scientifically informed election administration. The authors argue for a comparative approach to risk management that considers the costs and benefits of alternative methods. . . . A thoughtful early contribution to a new field of election science.
Scientific American - Michelle Press
Will the machine lose your vote? Will it be hacked? Political scientists Alvarez and Hall provide a rigorous analysis of electronic voting, and they come down heavily in favor of the benefits of the new technologies, arguing that media coverage has emphasized the problems while downplaying the potential for empowering more citizens to vote.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691146225
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 2/14/2010
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

R. Michael Alvarez is professor of political science at the California Institute of Technology. Thad E. Hall is associate professor of political science and research fellow at the Institute of Public and International Affairs at the University of Utah. They are the authors of "Point, Click, and Vote".
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Read an Excerpt

Electronic Elections The Perils and Promises of Digital Democracy
By R. Michael Alvarez Thad E. Hall Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12517-6


Before the 2004 election, there was a blizzard of media coverage about the potential problems associated with electronic voting. Claims were made that the machines would lose your votes or would be hacked. Democrats and Republicans alike used these potential problems as a mechanism for mobilizing voters. For example, the Florida Republican Party sent out fliers in 2004 that said: "The liberal Democrats have already begun their attacks and the new electronic voting machines do not have a paper ballot to verify your vote in case of a recount. Make sure your vote counts. Order your absentee ballot today." Likewise, Democratic candidate Steve Henley was quoted on the campaign trail saying "By voting absentee, you make sure your vote gets counted. And in the event there is a close election, they have a physical copy of your vote."

In 2004 voters in Broward County, Florida, were similarly encouraged to vote using absentee ballots so that they would not have to vote using the county's direct recording equipment (DRE) voting machines. By voting absentee, the voters were told that a paper record would exist of their vote and that it would be counted. Unfortunately, in the month preceding the November 2004 general election, as many as 58,000absentee ballots in Broward County were lost after leaving the county election office. Many voters there did not receive their ballot and could not easily vote any other way because their names were on the list of voters who had voted absentee. Moreover, it was expected that many of these voters would not receive the replacement absentee ballot in time for it to be returned and counted in the election. In an effort to use the debate over electronic voting to mobilize voters, thousands of voters may have been disenfranchised because the complexities of absentee voting had not been considered fully.

This story from the 2004 election illustrates a simple fact: life is full of risks, and all alternatives, including the choice not to act, carries with it inherent risks. This truism holds for elections as well, where all forms of voting carry inherent risks of problems, as a single procedural misstep can create an array of potential issues for voters. For example, the later the voters received the absentee ballots in Florida, the greater the likelihood that voters would return their ballot to the election office so late it would not be counted. Because these voters were now listed as absentee voters, they could not vote in a polling place or in early voting without bringing in their absentee ballot; otherwise, they would have to cast a provisional ballot. In any event, casting an absentee ballot carried its own potential problems. Even in the best of circumstances, in any election some percentage of absentee ballots are rejected because of voter errors either in completing the information on the absentee envelope or in missing the deadline for returning absentee ballots. Also, absentee ballots maybe more likely to contain overvotes or undervotes compared to precinct-cast ballots, because absentee voters do not have access to the same convenient error-checking technologies that precinct voters can use today.

This book is about the risks and trade-offs associated with electronic voting. We consider how the media have framed the debate over electronic voting and how the public perceives this debate. Election reform is rarely considered through the lens of risk analysis and trade-off. Instead, reforms are attacked by various interest groups, who typically make claims about the risks of some method of voting. This is true not only in the area of voting technology, where debates rage between those who are concerned primarily with accessibility and those who are concerned about security. Reforms such as no-excuse absentee voting, early voting, vote centers, and even reforms to voter registration systems have all come under intense scrutiny, with claims made that such reforms will somehow negatively affect the electoral process or otherwise harm our democracy.

It has become common to consider election reform, and electronic voting, very critically and as a high-risk activity. In a provocative book about risk analysis, the legal scholar Cass Sunstein (2005) notes that much of the world is currently interested in a form of risk management known as the precautionary principle. This principle is based on the idea that the decision to mitigate a potential risk should not require the existence of absolute proof that it will come to fruition. Stronger versions of the principle have been expressed primarily in the context of environmental and health policy. According to the president of Friends of the Earth, for example, "the precautionary principle mandates that when there is a risk of significant health or environmental damage to others or to future generations, and when there is scientific uncertainty as to the nature of that damage or the likelihood of the risk, then decisions should be made so as to prevent such activities from being conducted unless and until scientific evidence shows that the damage will not occur" (Sunstein 2005, 193 emphasis added). As Sunstein notes, however, it would be difficult to meet such a high standard.

Sunstein also makes an important yet basic critique of the precautionary principle: it does not consider the risks posed by the status quo. To illustrate the point, he reports the advances that scientists have identified that would have been prohibited by the precautionary principle, including most vaccinations, open-heart surgery, x-rays, and antibiotics. One scientist identified "pasteurization, immunization; the use of chemicals and irradiation in crop variety development" as examples of items that would be banned by the precautionary principle. One could argue that AIDS research should be terminated because we do not know the risks, but because we know that the status quo is inherently dangerous (people die), we know that doing nothing will also cause, or continue, certain risks. Quite simply, while risks can produce failures, it can also produce great rewards.

In this book, we consider the risk of electronic voting in light of what we know about the status quo. We begin by examining various frames that have been used to express the risks associated with the election process.

Three Frames for Considering Elections

For thirty-seven days in November and December 2000, while America waited to learn who would be the next president of the United States, election officials were the butt of late-night television monologues and were vilified in the media. The spotlight shown brightly on this one aspect of our political system, and people around the world learned about what had previously been an esoteric subject-American election administration. During this period, people also developed very distinct impressions about the conduct of elections, and three divergent views of the election took hold. These views reflect the nature of how people frame events for political and social purposes and how such framings are then used to discuss the risk of similar problems occuring in the future.

The first frame was that the election was a failure of administration across the electoral process. Various problems occurred in the election-from registration problems to voting system failures to improper poll worker actions-but they occurred because elections historically have been neglected. Fortunately, failures of administration are something we know how to deal with in America: we create commissions! And create them we did. There was a National Commission on Federal Election Reform that was chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and supported by scholars from several elite universities. An academic commission-the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project-provided an intellectual basis for election reform. Many states set up committees or commissioned reports to study election processes in their own states; for example, in Florida Governor Jeb Bush appointed a twenty-one-member Governor's Select Task Force on Elections Procedures, Standards and Technology immediately in the wake of the Bush v. Gore ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. Every relevant interest group-from the secretaries of states to the House Democratic caucus-also created a commission or task force and issued a report. The culmination of this work was the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, which injected several billion dollars into the electoral process and is now reshaping the way in which elections are conducted.

A second frame was that the election illustrated that voting is a civil right, and on this score the election failed large segments of the population. Especially since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which sought to strengthen Section 1 of the Constitution's Fifteenth Amendment ("The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude"), the ability of citizens to vote has been viewed as an important civil right. And while administrative failures lead to commissions and lawmaking, civil rights failures often lead to lawsuits and administrative remedies. Not surprisingly, then, numerous lawsuits were filed after the 2000 election challenging various aspects of election administration, but especially the voting equipment used in 2000 and the civil rights failures some of this equipment caused.

In California, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over the use of punch cards, while in Georgia it sued over the use of punch cards and optical scan equipment, as both types of equipment were argued to produce racial disparities. In several cities, organizations representing people with disabilities sued over any systems that did not provide an interface that would allow people with disabilities-especially the blind and people with very limited motor skills-to cast ballots without assistance. This view of voting as a civil right also is important to social scientists and many in politics, but in a slightly broader manner. Specifically, voting is a key part of citizenship and, as such, should be strongly encouraged. As both President Carter and President Clinton said after the 2000 election, it should be easy to register, easy to vote, and easy to count the votes. Making it easy for people who have historically been marginalized in the voting process benefits everyone. As we write this book, litigation over voting machines and election practices has become common in the United States.

The third frame is that the 2000 election was a fraud; the election was stolen. People on both sides of the political spectrum still hold this view. People on the left believe that Republicans stole the election in Florida, while people on the right point to places like St. Louis, Missouri, as an example of fraud in the works. This view that fraud is rampant-or potentially rampant-is not new. The very existence of voter registration laws, including requirements that voters register as much as thirty days before an election, are but one example of a policy designed to deter fraud. In general, those who view the electoral process with a strong concern about fraud are likely to have a view contrary to that held by presidents Carter and Clinton: elections should be designed to thwart fraud, even if it makes it difficult for some people to vote.

These three frames can determine the way in which policy makers and the public view the risk that a future election crisis will occur. After the 2000 election, the election reform debate centered primarily on the first two frames. Election reform required improving election administration and ensuring that all citizens were provided with the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in the electoral process. In fact, most election reform commissions in 2001 specifically avoided the topic of fraud and who was responsible for the problems in the 2000 election. Instead, the focus was on improving the electoral system and making the system work well for every person in America. HAVA addressed the concerns raised by the reform commissions and created a process for moving election reform forward in the states. HAVA also opened the door for the federal government to provide substantial funding to states for the purchase of new voting equipment.

Since the passage of HAVA and in the wake of the recent 2004 election, however, this view of elections as a civil right to be well administered has been overtaken by a view that the potential for fraud or glitches has become rampant. This view is especially held by some computer scientists and others who oppose electronic voting. Specifically, they argue that a potential for fraud exists because of the use of computers in elections for voting. According to these critics, direct recording electronic voting equipment, which has become popular because of its ability to enfranchise historically disenfranchised voters, are "black boxes" that are likely to contain malicious code that steal votes and steal elections. In essence, because hacking a DRE may be theoretically possible, it is inevitable that such hacking will occur. These critics are pushing efforts in Congress and states across the country to stop the deployment of DREs-with lawsuits and legislative initiatives-and to force states either to move back to paper systems or to outfit DREs with printers that will print a paper "receipt." Some even oppose efforts to create electronic audit trails, using state-of-the art cryptographics.

This book concerns, the ongoing debate about how Americans will cast ballots in future elections. We have had this debate throughout the history of the United States. Consider the evolution of voting rights since the nation's founding. Most people assume that the history of the United States is one where the franchise has been systematically enlarged. First nonlandowning males were granted the right to vote. Then the Fifteenth Amendment gave African Americans de jure voting rights-with de facto rights coming only with the passage of the Voting Rights Act-and the Nineteenth Amendment gave women voting rights. Finally, the Twenty-sixth Amendment gave individuals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one the right to vote, making America a more fully democratic society. As many scholars have noted, however, this history is incomplete. During our nation's history, we have had periods of legal expansions of voting rights, but also periods where the law has been used-intentionally or unintentionally-to disenfranchise.

Many of these periods of marked disenfranchisement have occurred because of concerns about election fraud. For example, Keyssar (2000) notes that literacy tests, poll taxes, and voter registration were all designed to limit election fraud. Although we typically associate some of these tactics with efforts to disenfranchise African Americans, they did have "progressive" proponents who did not think it appropriate for those with limited educations or who owed debts to the state to be able to participate in elections. For example, the New York Times (1923) referred to that state's literacy test as "a wholesome law" and supported the legislation creating the law. Progressive "good government" groups argued that voters who could not pass the literacy test could be easily swayed, have their votes purchased, or make uneducated choices. Even efforts that seem reasonable today, such as voter registration, were originally quite onerous because of the way it was implemented. A voter typically had to register in person during office hours (between nine and five o' clock) at some central government office, and do so annually. This effort kept the voting rolls fresh and limited the ability of fraudulent voters from being on the rolls. The fact that it made it difficult for many otherwise eligible citizens to stay registered, thus effectively disenfranchising them, was the price of stopping fraud.


Excerpted from Electronic Elections by R. Michael Alvarez Thad E. Hall
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1: What This Book Is About 1
CHAPTER 2: Paper Problems, Electronic Promises 12
CHAPTER 3: Criticisms of Electronic Voting 30
CHAPTER 4: The Frame Game 50
CHAPTER 5: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back 71
CHAPTER 6: The Performance of the Machines 100
CHAPTER 7: Public Acceptance of Electronic Voting 133
CHAPTER 8: A New Paradigm for Assessing Voting Technologies 156
CHAPTER 9: Conclusion 178

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