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CFP'93 - Waskell

CFP'93 - Overview of Computers and Elections

by Eva Waskell

Director, Elections Project
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
Washington, DC Chapter
Copyright (c) 1993 by Eva Waskell.


My purpose in writing this overview is threefold. 1) To raise some questions about the impact of computers on the election process and to propose ways for citizens to become involved in helping to find solutions. 2) To encourage an informed public debate about the risks and reliabilities of electronic vote tabulating systems. 3) To point out the lack of scientific studies and factual data in this area and to demonstrate the urgent need for some comprehensive research upon which to base public policy.

An in-depth evaluation of the technologies and the businesses that control elections is long overdue. It is my hope that what follows is thought provoking and leaves the reader wanting to know more.

When voters went to the polls in November 1992, few realized that their ballots were being counted privately. Yes, that's right. The majority of votes cast in the recent presidential election were tabulated by secret programs under the proprietary control of the companies that design and sell electronic voting systems to election jurisdictions throughout the country. The instructions in these programs are known only to the people who were paid to create them. The courts have protected the rights of these companies to prevent anyone from independently auditing their tabulating software.

These circumstances have a direct impact on the integrity of elections. First, other than the programmer, there is no one, including election officials who "certify" the accuracy of vote totals, who can say how election results are actually determined. Most of what we can know about the accuracy of vote tabulation is what the company representatives tell us.

Second, since it is impossible to verify that vote tabulating programs are doing what they are supposed to and nothing more, it is impossible to resolve any dispute about whether or not manipulation of votes is taking place. The public debate about alleged vote tampering will continue forever.

In addition, all of the pre- and post-election testing of the tabulating programs proves absolutely nothing about the accuracy of vote totals. Recounts of elections can only demonstrate that a program is tabulating consistently, not accurately. A time bomb, worm, virus, Trojan horse or other variety of trap doors, or even worse, an unintentional error in the program's code, would never be discovered under these conditions.

As long as vote tabulating logic remains part of a set of rules known only to the programmer who wrote the software, the votes of every American citizen will continue to be tabulated secretly. Secret vote counting has no place in a democracy.


Computers were first used to tabulate votes in the early 1960s. Throughout the 1980s serious questions were raised about both the accuracy of the vote tabulating programs and the vulnerability of the systems to undetectable manipulation. Many of the criticisms were dismissed with cries of "sour grapes on the part of losing candidates." Human errors, procedural errors or innocent glitches in the programs were usually identified as the sources of the problems. There was no comprehensive or independent investigation done to gather all the facts and ask the right questions.

Many court cases involving allegations of fraud were brought against vendors of electronic voting systems. There were no convictions. Was there ever any proof of tampering presented? No. Part of the reason for this may be that during the litigation the plaintiffs were never given access to the vote tabulating program, and hence there was no opportunity for anyone to establish evidence to either prove or disprove the allegations.

What has been proven, however, is that vote tabulating programs do contain errors. In 1984, Illinois began a systematic and exhaustive test of the vote counting systems used in the state. Tabulating errors in the programs were found in 28% of the systems that were tested. According to Michael Harty, the person in charge of the testing, nobody seemed to care.

Almost a decade later, little attention is still being paid to the computer programs that determine winners and losers in all local, state and federal elections.


The Election Community The community of election officials is largely unorganized. Technical expertise is spread unevenly. Counties with thousands of precincts like Los Angeles or Miami tend to have sophisticated resources and a lot of technical help that smaller jurisdictions lack.

One thing that all election officials are concerned about is money. State budgets for election departments have never been generous, and in today's economy it is even more difficult to obtain funding for election administration. This means that election officials are constantly having to run operations with inadequate financial support.

Election personnel is low on the learning curve when it comes to basic security standards and procedures. Election officials frequently turn to the vendors of voting systems for advice about security or for help in running elections because there is no in-house technical expertise available. Furthermore, the election community is not in regular contact with the computer science community and so is unable to tap into a vast amount of knowledge and skills that could otherwise be used to assist in running elections efficiently.

Antiquated election laws contribute to the problem because they offer inadequate guidance to the people in charge of elections. Some state laws have been updated to take electronic voting systems into account, but many laws that were drawn up in the age of paper ballots remain in effect. In the absence of policy guidelines or clearly defined laws pertaining specifically to electronic voting systems, election officials have little choice but to make decisions on their own.

To add to the confusion, there is no nationwide uniformity in election procedures or terminology. Conditions such as these where each local or state jurisdiction is doing its own thing make it impossible to establish good computer security measures. While states' rights must be respected, ultimately the election community itself will have to take responsibility and reach its own conclusions about how to ensure the integrity of elections. The vendors can not and should not be expected to do the job for them.

The Federal Election Commission

The National Clearinghouse on Election Administration was established by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in order to contract for independent studies of the administration of elections. One of the projects undertaken by the Clearinghouse was the development of standards for vote tabulating systems. The task took five years to complete and resulted in voluntary standards for minimal levels of hardware and software performance. The vendors were given a great deal of discretion in such critical areas as the choice of programming language, determining the system specifications and security features, and defining the accuracy of the systems. An independent audit of the software is not required. Audit trails are not required. Vendors can continue to help election officials run elections. In short, the voluntary standards allow everything and give the vendors too much power.

The Vendors of Electronic Voting Systems

The vendors who design and sell electronic voting systems comprise a small but important industry that is unregulated and has no mandatory standards to follow from either federal or state agencies during product development. Frequently, one vendor or its subsidiaries will control not only the hardware and software of the voting system, but the election supplies (ballots, ballot boxes, etc.), maintenance services and election management systems as well. None of these businesses have to contend with regulators or oversight committees unless the local or state authorities require it.

When voting systems do have to be certified by a state, the certification procedures are not very stringent in critical areas. For example, no state requires that election software be audited. Vendors insist that their programs are proprietary and state certification boards appear to agree. In addition, there are no mandatory guidelines the vendors have to follow, other than their own, when it comes to installing specific security features on voting systems.

There is also no organized effort on the part of election officials to demand that certain criteria for reliability and accuracy are met. With little pressure for change coming from the election community, or anyone else for that matter, the vendors are free to do as they see fit. Should citizens continue to accept this lack of accountability in an industry that has absolute control over how votes are counted?

Who exactly owns and runs these companies? What other businesses have they purchased? Who sits on the board of directors? Are board members affiliated with any political parties? Who are the employees? What's their background and training like? Are they United States citizens? Have they been convicted of any felonies? The public needs to be thinking about these questions. Someone needs to be providing the answers.


If the FEC voluntary standards remain unchallenged, and it's "business as usual" for the vendors, what can we expect to see in the years ahead?

Election officials, especially in the smaller jurisdictions with limited resources, will unknowingly continue to eagerly adopt the inadequate standards which contain implicit instructions to trust the vendors. This will create a false sense of security in the election community and make voting systems more vulnerable than ever before.

Some jurisdictions will inevitably ignore part of the standards that don't meet their needs. New York City, for example, is spending $60 million to acquire electronic voting machines from Sequoia Pacific. The software that tabulates the votes will be designed and developed by the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche. No one will perform an independent audit to verify its accuracy and integrity. Will the trustworthy programmers assigned to write the software be accountable to any public official? How much will these people be paid? And by whom?

The FEC has not yet issued management guidelines for elections but states are moving ahead with plans of their own. Oklahoma has a statewide election management system that handles not only voter registration but also changes precinct boundaries, verifies names on petitions, does polling place management, handles election accounting and budgeting, and processes absentee voters. The system was designed by Andersen Consulting.

In summary, we can expect to see more and more privately developed systems and less and less oversight as computers become integrated into the election process. What will be the consequences of this trend?


In his inaugural address, President Clinton called upon the nation to "revitalize our democracy." I would like to suggest that we could begin the job of revitalization with an informed public discussion about the impact of computers on elections. Some of the questions that could be addressed include the following:

  1. What is the exact nature and extent of the threat posed by using computers to tabulate votes? And what about the voter registration lists that are an essential part of any electronic voting system? How accurate are these lists?

  2. After computers have been used for nearly three decades in all phases of elections, the FEC appears to be either unwilling or unable to provide the leadership necessary to ensure that election officials have access to the information and tools they need to do their jobs effectively. How did this happen? How can it be changed?

  3. Do we want to create a partnership or ongoing exchange of ideas between election officials and the technical and management experts whose knowledge is essential to running elections? How could such an arrangement be made to work?

  4. Vendors operate their businesses in an environment with no regulations, no oversight and no accountability to public officials. Their market is not only recession proof but guaranteed to remain in existence until Congress or the courts declare that voting is unconstitutional. Should this laissez-faire approach continue? How could it be changed?

  5. Who are the financial backers and investors behind the vendors?

  6. What are our priorities when it comes to electronic voting systems? What kind of systems should we be telling the vendors to build? Do we want speed at any price? How much security is necessary? How much accuracy is possible? What will these features really cost? What can election officials afford to purchase?

  7. Do we want large accounting firms, whose role in the savings and loan debacle is well documented, to play an active part in the development and implementation of electronic voting systems?

  8. Why isn't Congress addressing the endless stream of questions and concerns that are being raised about the vulnerability of electronic voting systems?

  9. Our two-party system has a built-in mechanism of checks and balances that could be used as a first line of defense in monitoring elections at the precinct level. What is the most effective way to involve the political parties and poll watchers in safeguarding elections?

  10. How do we want election technology to serve us in the next 20-30 years? Do we want to start now to develop a long-range plan? If we fail to control the technology, the technology may control us.


It is first necessary to define a problem before looking for solutions. A forum is needed where such problem definition can take place. Questions of the type listed above are only the beginning of the process. Voters will undoubtedly be able to think of many more. What is important is that a public dialogue be started in conjunction with scientific research into the technologies that are critical to the democratic process. Let's revitalize our democracy and reinvent America by reinventing American elections and thereby restoring confidence (and accuracy) in electronic voting systems.

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