Does fraud threaten the upcoming presidential election? Everyone seems to think so. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley recently banned 43,000 electronic voting machines this fall unless paper receipts are provided and a long list of other conditions are fulfilled. With just six months before the presidential election, county registrars were in a state of shock, predicting that a change close to an election meant chaos.
Bill Maher jokes that "some 13-year-old hacker in Finland is going to hand the presidency to (singer) Kylie Minogue." More seriously, Sen. Hillary Clinton warns Democrats how "hacking" easily can "skew our elections" and points out that a Republican is the second-largest manufacturer of electronic voting machines. Senators and congressmen are rushing to introduce legislation requiring that electronic machines have paper-recording devices.
Last month Democrats on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights claimed electronic voting machines meant "we're ending up in '04 with the very same problems and issues that were there before."
Yet, these horror stories have one major problem: None of the electronic voting machines is hooked up to the Internet. The machines are stand-alone units. It would be like someone trying to hack into your computer while it wasn't hooked up to the Internet. Impossible.
Most electronic voting machines transfer the election results to a compact disk or some other "read only" format. These CDs are then taken to a central location where they are read into a computer. In the 20-plus years that these machines have been used, in many counties all across the country, there has never been a verified case of tampering.
When computer scientists warn of possible tampering with voting machines, they are not talking about hacking but about someone physically breaking open the lock on each individual machine and reprogramming it. Even if those breaking into the machines overcome the tamper-proof seals without being noticed, going through one computer at a time hardly seems like the way to steal most elections.
What about the nightmare scenario that a Republican manufacturer secretly will program the computers to alter the election results? Such a scheme easily would be revealed as precincts check the machines for accuracy with sample votes both before and after the election. In California, machines were even randomly chosen to test during the day just in case their programs miscounted votes only during voting hours. If, say, one out of every 10 votes were switched, it would show up when sample votes are fed into the machines.
A few electronic voting machines, along with even more optical scans, offer election officials the option to collect vote counts using encrypted modems in addition to removable read-only memory. A security expert commissioned by the state of Maryland reportedly "broke into the computer at the state Board of Elections" during a test and "completely" changed the election results.
Yet, the tampering wasn't under real-world conditions, used an old system and really didn't change the results. Hackers have not only to know what telephone number to call, bypass the modem encryption and determine the password within a very narrow time frame, but two sets of calls reportedly from the same precinct would raise a red flag. Even if all those things go wrong, the original data in the voting machines would not be compromised, and it would still be possible to conduct an accurate recount.
Interestingly, no politicians so far have raised these same concerns about optical scans even though this threat involves hacking a central computer, not electronic voting machines.
So what about the claim that electronic voting machines make recounts impossible because they lack paper records? Each electronic voting machine contains multiple redundant "read only" memories. These unalterable memories are just as available to be rechecked as paper records.
Paper ballots add nothing, except generating unnecessary costs. The redundant "read only" memories also protect against computer crashes or corrupted data. Lever machines also have never used paper receipts.
It is remarkable that paper records with their history are now held up as the gold standard. Take just one example of how paper records could be misleading. Suppose that voters are given a chance to double check their electronic ballots and signal whether they are correct. If incorrect, the machine prints out a statement voiding the original receipt, and voters are allowed to vote again. If the programming fraud is rampant, as critics claim, a machine could simply void the paper record after the voter has left and then print out a new receipt.
The irony is that Democrats who complained the loudest about how punch-card machines and hanging chads in Florida disenfranchised voters are now complaining the loudest about what they earlier insisted was the "cure." Conspiracy theories may rally the political faithful, but at the risk of poisoning the political debate for years to come.
John R. Lott Jr. is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.