The Future of Electronic Voting

Robert K. Moniot


In recent decades, a number of countries with well-established traditions of democracy have seen voter participation decline, due to factors including apathy and a feeling that one’s vote does not make a real difference for the issues that many consider important. Electronic voting holds great promise for keeping democracy vibrant in the modern age. Direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting systems can be easier to use and less confusing than older paper ballot or punched-card methods. For instance, DRE systems often use touch screens so voters do not need facility with keyboard and mouse. They can display pictures for voters who have difficulty reading, and can provide aural cues for the blind. Casting votes over the Internet, if it could be done securely, would make voting more convenient and enable shut-ins or those in remote areas to vote without absentee ballots. It could even usher in a new form of democracy with more frequent and direct voting on issues directly relevant to the citizens.

However, if electronic voting is to become widely accepted, it will need to do more than simply meet technical design goals of user friendliness, security and reliability. It is important to remember that a voting system is more than just a technology for tabulating votes. The social/political aspects, involving subjective factors of perception, acceptance, and trust are equally or even more important. The legitimacy of the government rests in part on public confidence in the election process. If elections are widely seen as rigged, coerced or bought, then this confidence will be lost. This means that the voting system must be accepted by the citizens if it is to support the social contract whereby democracy functions. Therefore an important goal in the design of any voting system is that it be seen as trustworthy by the citizenry.

Americans’ confidence in their election system received a shock in the 2000 Presidential election, when the outcome hinged on a small number of questionable votes cast using punched-card technology. Ultimately the election was decided in the Supreme Court, and many observers (especially the losers) were unsatisfied. This caused a loss of confidence in technologies that had been used for decades to cast votes. Even those who were pleased with the outcome were concerned to avoid a repetition of this spectacle. One consequence of the call for remedial action was the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which passed the U.S. Congress in 2002 by a large margin. This legislation mandated technical upgrades to voting equipment across the nation, allocating US$ 3.9 billion to the effort. The result was the overnight transformation of the DRE voting industry, which had hitherto been a small niche market, into a vast government boondoggle.

But ironically, this vast expenditure has done little to reassure the public of the trustworthiness of the election system. News articles appear frequently in the American press calling into question the security and reliability of DRE systems and pointing to significant failures in one election or another. The makers of DRE systems have tended to respond to the allegations of security flaws or reliability problems with denials that the problems are real. No doubt they are concerned to avoid providing any ammunition for product-liability lawsuits, but their manner of response could well be a strategic mistake, since it does little to convince anyone that they are truly committed to fixing reported problems. In the long run, this could lead to a failure of public acceptance of DRE voting systems and a return to older systems such as the traditional paper ballot.

This phenomenon may be rooted to some extent in American partisan politics: the chief executives of the makers of DRE systems tend to be Republicans, and often the questioning of election results has come from Democrats, whose Presidential candidates have lost the last two elections. Whatever the reasons, the situation is becoming polarized in a manner reminiscent of what happened to the nuclear power industry in the 1970s. In that case, public concerns, only partly based on fact, reached such a pitch that all construction of new nuclear plants ceased. There is a distinct possibility that a similar consensus will build in opposition to electronic voting systems. Already voters in a number of states have filed suits to halt the use of electronic voting systems, citing concerns about vulnerability to hacking or manipulation.

This paper will examine these developments in an effort to understand how the DRE industry in the U.S. reached this position, and what policy and/or public relations measures might be used to address the underlying issues so that electronic voting can play an appropriate role in the democratic process. The U.S. situation will be compared to other countries, some of which are having similar experiences while in others the transition to e-voting is going smoothly.


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