US tentative on electronic voting

With the problems of the last US election still fresh in the memory, and similar problems in the UK, voting techniques on 4 November will be decidedly traditional.

In Silicon Valley, the heart of the US technology industry, voters will still be using traditional pen and paper to cast their votes in the Presidential election of 4 November.

The same is true in the UK, and when electronic voting was used in recent mayoral election it caused serious problems. By way of contrast, voters in Brazil and India enjoy all-digital push button voting.

In the US in 2000, a ballot fiasco in Florida delayed the result of the presidential election by 35 days. But in Brazil in 2006, 130 million votes were counted in 2.5 hours.

Such are the ironies of how the world votes. But although some might see low-tech voting in the hi-tech US, experts say Americans will find more reliable and secure voting systems in this election than in 2000 and 2004.

"We have retired the punch card ballots, which were demonstrably a bad way to vote," said Charles Stewart, head of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and member of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

"We are just about to retire the mechanical lever machines, which were also not a great way to vote. Voters using those two technologies were 40 to 50 per cent of the electorate in 2000."

Indeed, the punch card ballots developed in the 1960s were at the heart of the famous recount in Florida in 2000 that ended with Republican George W. Bush narrowly defeating Democrat Al Gore.

That nightmare sparked a rush toward electronic voting machines, but myriad technical glitches and security flaws in 2004 tarnished that technology's reputation.

Some states and counties readjusted their electronic systems and this year counties in 24 states will vote with electronic voting or lever machines. But many dumped electronic machines and went back to paper, while investing in optical scanning devices for counting ballots.

Most voters in California, for example, will ink a paper ballot and drop it in an optical scanner, giving voters the reliability afforded by a paper trail.

"This year, paper voting has eclipsed electronic voting, and I consider that to be progress," said Kim Alexander, president of voter advocacy group California Voter Foundation.

Since it began electronic voting in 1996, Brazil has phased out the machines' paper receipts and expects to implement digital and face recognition of voters in five to 10 years. The goal is to reduce human intervention to a minimum.

"We had a slow and fraudulent electoral process that was totally untrustworthy and that was the main motivation for our big investment in this area," said Giuseppe Janino, head of technology at Brazil's Electoral Tribunal.

Brazil lends its machines and know-how to other countries, but doesn't plan to export its product "Made for Brazil." The US, Janino said, has not sought Brazil's help.

"There are countries that use paper and people trust the process, even if it is manual and slow," said Janino.

But MIT's Stewart said he expects more development in electronic voting in the US despite the setbacks.

"I still think there is, at least in theory, a role for electronic voting machines in places that have especially complicated electoral environments," said Stewart.

"What is unfortunate is that we have not set up a mechanism to assure broad elements of the public that those electronic machines are honest machines."

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