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Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting (2006)

Chapter: 7 Findings and Conclusions

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Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
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7
Findings and Conclusions

In articulating the questions presented in Chapters 4, 5, and 6, the committee developed a number of findings that it believes can help to clarify the nature of the debate over electronic voting systems and provide a framework for putting these questions into perspective.

The committee believes that electronic voting systems offer potential for voting and election management that is an improvement over what has thus far been available. However, the realization of this potential requires a commitment to this path by the nation, the states, and local jurisdictions that is not yet evident. From facilitating or enabling alternative forms of voting (e.g., absentee voting, early voting) to increasing the comprehensibility of ballots and reducing opportunities for fraud and enhancing the accuracy of vote counts, electronic voting systems of all kinds offer possibilities for greater enfranchisement of the population at large. Because electronic voting systems cannot simply replace the voting systems already deployed and in use, a commitment to this path will require innovative and dynamic methods to develop, implement, and improve comprehensive electronic voting solutions rather than just individual components.

Further, this commitment must be understood as an ongoing effort that includes support for a new national research process, with research laboratories at the national, regional, or state levels; the implementation of research and development efforts to resolve the security and usability issues associated with existing and new election technologies; a lasting commitment to open and dynamic standards, testing, and certification

Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
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efforts for election technologies; and ongoing efforts to educate election officials, poll workers, voters, and the general public about these new election technologies.

Also, it must be recognized that the deployments of electronic voting systems in the past few years are likely to be just the beginning of a long period of adaptation to electronic technologies in election administration and management. (As one point of comparison, consider that it took about 40 years for secret ballots to be adopted nationwide.)

A second important point, obvious yet often overlooked in the public debate, is that the introduction of electronic voting systems is intended to make elections better. That is, the desirability of electronic voting systems should be judged on the basis of whether their use will significantly improve the process of election administration. When new voting systems offer an opportunity to significantly improve at reasonable cost the process of election administration in multiple dimensions over what it is today—for example, to make election administration more efficient, less costly, more usable and accurate, more trustworthy and secure, and so on—it makes sense to consider their deployment. On the other hand, merely marginal improvements are rarely if ever worth the cost of the disruption associated with the introduction of new systems. In general, it is reasonable to make judgments about cost-effectiveness—whether certain improvements are worth the cost of obtaining them—as long as these judgments are explicit. (In this regard, the law of diminishing returns clearly applies: the cost of the last few improvements is likely to be many times the cost of the first few.)

Moreover, judgments about the ultimate desirability and feasibility of electronic voting systems should not be limited to the features and flaws of the systems demonstrated to date. Today’s debate over electronic voting systems has been framed largely by examination of electronic voting products available today. Irrespective of the merits of these examinations, the history of most technology-based artifacts is that early versions reflect limited operational experience and that later versions improve over time as user needs and threats to system integrity are understood better and as the underlying technology improves. It is thus inappropriate to make strong generalizations about the systems of tomorrow based solely on inspection of the systems of today.

A corollary of this finding is that because electronic voting systems are so flexible, the range of possible performance and functionality is exceedingly large. At one end, it is entirely possible to design systems that perform more poorly and are less usable and less secure than any system in use today. At the other end, there is no a priori reason that systems could not be designed to be much better with respect to nearly any set of features or requirements. What matters operationally, of course, is where

Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
×

any given system offered for sale lies on this continuum, not generalizations at either end of the range.

At the same time, there are some technical realities that are exceedingly likely to persist over the long run. For instance, small software changes might (or might not) result in substantial changes to the system’s behavior, and testing alone cannot prove the absence of problems. Conclusions based on such realities have a staying power that conclusions based on today’s state of technology do not.

The committee also believes that trusted election processes should be regarded as the gold standard of election administration, where a trusted election process is one that works, can be shown to have worked after the election has been held, can be shown to have not been manipulated and to have not led to a large number of mistaken or lost votes, and can be shown to reflect the intent of the voters. As discussed in Section 2.2, trusted election processes increase the likelihood that elections will be regarded as fair, even by the losing side and even in a partisan political environment.

As for the often rancorous debate about electronic voting, the committee believes that many parties have made important contributions:

  • Electronic voting skeptics have raised important questions about the security of electronic voting systems that should not be discouraged or suppressed. Experience indicates that the public airing of issues related to security often results in revelations of flaws that might not have been forthcoming in the absence of such airing, and the history of the electronic voting systems debate in the last few years is no exception to this experience. Skeptics have also raised the point that electronic voting systems, like all complex systems, are fallible and susceptible to deliberate or accidental compromise. Thus, it seems to the committee to be a matter of common sense that some kind of backup against the possibility of fraud or malfunction should be available if and when allegations of such occurrences arise. The paper trail may be a mechanism that can serve this function, but whether it is the only or most appropriate such mechanism has yet to be determined.

  • Political scientists who have studied elections for many years have identified data whose collection would enable the public to judge the accuracy and usability of voting systems in use and the accuracy and reliability of the voter registration systems used by states, counties, and municipalities. Again, it seems to be a matter of common sense that independent observers need relevant and reliable data in order to judge the adequacy of the systems in use, and election officials should be encouraged to acquire such data and to make it publicly available.

Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
×
  • Legislators in many states have publicly aired many important issues related to electronic voting. In so doing, they have placed a considerable amount of useful information on the public record, and they have successfully balanced a variety of concerns in some of their legislative efforts.

At the same time, it is appropriate and proper that election officials are properly concerned about many aspects of election administration, and they must balance a variety of considerations—including security, speed and accuracy of reporting election results, usability, affordability, voter turnout, and compliance with federal, state, and local election laws. It is entirely reasonable and understandable that they take an operational perspective, as might be expressed in the question, Will a particular electronic voting system help to significantly improve election administration and management with respect to all of these considerations? If they can in good conscience answer this question in the affirmative, acquisition of such a system is justifiable.

As for the security debate per se, election officials sometimes complain that security advocates are undermining public confidence when they assert that security is an issue. But the committee believes that by responding affirmatively and openly to revelations, public officials can make improvements and also promote the public confidence that will be necessary for the widespread adoption of electronic voting. At the same time, those who advocate single-mindedly for security without explicitly acknowledging the broader concerns of election officials are inviting those officials to give their advice less consideration than might otherwise be warranted. Framing concerns about security in the larger context of all of the issues of concern will also help to improve the tone of the debate.

In developing this report, the committee took note of the significant emotion and passion felt by all participants in the public debate about electronic voting. Although such passion and emotion are often regarded as impediments to a reasoned and thoughtful public debate, the committee believes that these passions reflect—at heart—a very emotional and visceral-level commitment to the notion of democracy. One can—and people do—take issue with various arguments about technology or organization, but on balance, the committee believes that the nation is much better served by passionate engagement than by dispassionate apathy, and so the passions expressed by the various participants on all sides of the debate are to be commended rather than disparaged. The committee further hopes that the questions that it has articulated in this report can help the nation overcome political and technological barriers that may impede the improvement of the election systems in the future.

Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
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Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
×
Page 130
Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
×
Page 131
Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
×
Page 132
Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
×
Page 133
Suggested Citation:"7 Findings and Conclusions." National Research Council. 2006. Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11449.
×
Page 134
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Many election officials look to electronic voting systems as a means for improving their ability to more effectively conduct and administer elections. At the same time, many information technologists and activists have raised important concerns regarding the security of such systems. Policy makers are caught in the midst of a controversy with both political and technological overtones. The public debate about electronic voting is characterized by a great deal of emotion and rhetoric.

Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting describes the important questions and issues that election officials, policy makers, and informed citizens should ask about the use of computers and information technology in the electoral process—focusing the debate on technical and policy issues that need resolving. The report finds that while electronic voting systems have improved, federal and state governments have not made the commitment necessary for e-voting to be widely used in future elections. More funding, research, and public education are required if e-voting is to become viable.

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