The primary election season is in full swing, and in less than a year Americans will take to the polls to choose the next president. While the country may count on many heated arguments over which candidate is best for the job, it won't be the only issue up for debate. Voting kiosks, a simple way of describing what the government refers to as direct recording electronic machines, have also spurred many a debate over the years.
While some argue that the technology could speed up the election process by providing a secure and accurate way of identifying registered voters and counting votes, others disagree. Regardless of who wins the debate, however, the outlandish cost of implementing an all-kiosk election process makes it nearly impossible to accomplish.
About 186.8 million Americans were registered to vote for the November 2010 election, 3.6 million fewer than in the 2008 presidential election, according to U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent body that strives to help Americans have easy and fair access to voting. Although less than half of 2010's registered voters — 90,810,67 — actually voted in the election, it would take 518,889 kiosks to accommodate all registered voters, assuming there are 12 voting hours in a day, that each person could complete his vote in under two minutes and that 360 people could vote each day. If you estimate that each kiosk would cost at least $1,000, that's more than $500 million and doesn't account for costs of storing, maintaining, programming, software, shipping and logistics, said Sheridan Orr, managing partner, The Interrobang Agency, a customer experience consulting firm.
"You have to have enough kiosks to ensure that everyone can vote on election day," said Orr, who has spent many years in the kiosk business. "Then, you have to store and maintain those units for the rest of the year. It is a significant investment for something that is infrequently used. I would imagine that given the budget situation in which many states find themselves, they have more pressing demands for their limited resources."
Despite the expense, Ron Bowers, senior vice president of business development at kiosk manufacturer Frank Mayer & Associates, said a kiosk voting system "would cost much less than the national Federal savings, convenience and security benefits from a proper execution."
The American way
The United States does not have an official policy for or against the use of voting kiosks, according to Bryan Whitener, deputy director of communications for the EAC. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, however, requires that all voting systems used in federal elections meet certain requirements. To help ensure those requirements, EAC has developed Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, a set of specifications that voting systems, voting devices and software must meet to receive EAC certification. EAC-accredited laboratories test voting systems, voting devices and software against these guidelines, Whitener said. It's up to each state, however, to choose its type of voting method — electronic or via paper ballot. And since the program is voluntary, this means that states are free to use EAC's program and guidelines or alternative approaches.
The Help America Vote Act also mandates that one handicapped accessible voting system be provided per polling place, which often comes in the form of a kiosk.
Although voting kiosks haven't totally caught on in the United States, other countries, including Brazil and India, rely on them entirely. Brazil implemented an all-electronic voting system about 10 years ago with portable kiosks and a centralized process to tabulate elections. In October, the municipal elections will employ an upgraded version of an Intel Atom-based voting machine that incorporates advanced fingerprint identification capacity, according to Intel Free Press.
In 2004, India became the second country to implement an all-kiosk voting system when 380 million Indians cast votes on more than 1 million machines. Belgium and the Philippines also use the technology in either the voting or counting process for all of their national elections.
How voting kiosks work
Brazil, which has 140 million voters — about 20 million fewer registered voters than the United States — uses kiosks manufactured by Sao Paulo-based Diebold Procom, a subsidiary of Ohio-based Diebold Inc., that also used to manufacture most of the voting kiosks in the United States. In 2009, it sold that part of the business to Election Systems & Software, a company that is now the leading manufacturer of voting kiosks in the United States. It sells a variety of voting products ranging from ballot scanners to total kiosks systems, such as the iVotronic Touch Screen Voting System, a 100-percent paperless voting system with a 15-inch full-color display. (Click here to watch a video on how it works.)
Brazil's kiosks, which are still manufactured by Diebold, weigh about 9 pounds and have a screen activated by a built-in numerical keypad. Voters punch numbers that correspond to the measures or candidates, the latter often displayed with a headshot. Votes are transmitted via a secure satellite network. Battery life is nine-to-10 hours, which comes in handy at polling places lacking electrical power, according to Intel.
People who do not read or those speaking different languages can still use the kiosks, and the visually impaired have an option to hear their votes cast through headphones. Brazilian voters can identify themselves with three fingerprints, a feature piloted in 2008 with 60,000 voters which has since grown significantly.
The country is in Phase 2 of the biometric identification program and has about 10 million voters who can identify themselves through their fingerprints this year, Giuseppe Janino, secretary of technology for Brazil's Tribunal Superior Eleitoral, told Intel. By 2018, he expects 100 percent of Brazilian voters to be biometrically registered.
Brazil's success with voting kiosks has inspired other countries to follow in its footsteps. Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Mexico, for example, have signed agreements to rent the TSE's voting machines for their own elections.
The accuracy of voting kiosks is very much up for debate. Proponents often argue that electronic voting machines are secure, are capable of preventing residual votes, reliable, easy to use, and can calculate and report voting results faster, and are accessible to disabled, illiterate and non-English speaking voters.
Opponents, however, believe that the manufacturers of the voting machines have too much power over public elections, and that the kiosks are vulnerable to hacking and other forms of tampering. Also, they don't allow for meaningful audits and recounts or offer voters a trustworthy way to verify their votes.
Even the International Foundation for Electoral Systems has mixed positions on the accuracy issue. In a 2011 report, it wrote that electronic voting can prevent fraud in polling stations because it only allows votes to be cast at a certain speed, thus mitigating ballot stuffing. It also wrote, however, that "electronic voting and counting software could be manipulated to record vote preferences which are different from those made by the voters" or that fraud and manipulation can occur in the electronic tabulation of results.
Some countries aren't taking any chances. Germany, for example, banned e-voting in 2009, after a court ruled that the automated process used for the previous 10 years was unconstitutional. Citing issues over adequate privacy and security safeguards, the Netherlands in 2008 decertified its e-voting machines, moving back to paper balloting.
Still, Brazil maintains its voting kiosks are a success, according to Janino, who said that because Brazil's system is 100 percent electronic, it hasn't seen cases of election malfunctions that have occurred in the U.S., such as the problem Florida suffered in the 2000 presidential election or the recent issues with optical ballot scanners freezing and misreading votes in Florida, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin as reported by the USA Today.
Secretary of State Debra Bowen, whose job includes serving as California's chief elections officer, started monitoring electronic voting in 2007, when she commissioned a complete review of software, hardware, source code and documents of voting systems used throughout the state.
"Nothing of that magnitude had ever been done federally or in another state," said Shannan Velayas, Bowen's spokesperson. "The testing was done by independent teams of nationally respected experts who have backgrounds in computer security, cryptography, information technology, and electronic voting. The top-to-bottom review teams tested everything from the usability for people with limited physical abilities to the security vulnerabilities that could allow tampering with people's votes."
The results led Bowen to favor the transparency of voter-marked paper ballots, which can readily be recounted, coupled with the accuracy and speed of the computer to do the tedious work of counting multiple races, Velayes said.
"On all the voting systems recertified, the Secretary of State placed tighter use conditions on the components of voting systems that the researchers found were the most fundamentally flawed and vulnerable to security breaches," Velayes said. "The Secretary of State also requires strict post-election audits, to make sure that the scanners and all the computerized equipment have performed correctly, because that's something we cannot know simply by observation."
Although overhauling the entire American voting system to include an all-kiosk method isn't likely, Michael Ionescu, president of kiosk manufacture Ionescu Technologies, knows exactly how it could work.
"I think the perfect way to do it would be to walk up to a booth, scan your license or some sort of voter ID card, which then allows you to vote. Today, every state has their own system in place, and many of them are bogged down by multiple systems of verification that don't necessarily work," he said.
For example, Ionescu said, last time he voted no one asked for his ID but gave him a portable electronic device to sign. He was then taken to a touchscreen kiosk.
"The more organized the system, the harder it is to commit fraud," he said. "I was always under the impression that some form of ID was required. I found out it's not, and saw how easy it was for me to just give my name to vote as opposed to having some sort of current ID. Almost anyone could have pretended to be me in this instance."
In order for a kiosk-based voting system to work, the process needs to be the same across the country and should be connected electronically to a safe central server at all times.
"There should be some sort of hard copy that the machine keeps track of as a back-up," he said. "Some sort of ID or license needs to be scanned as well. In the end it's all about proper execution. Kiosk networks, in my opinion, fail many times because of improper execution."
Ionescu isn't the only one that thinks some type of receipt should be issued at the kiosk. Most of Election Systems & Software's voting kiosks offer real-time paper trails, and it's also developed a similar prototype for its ivotronic system and "stands ready to support implementation," according to its website. However, it also wants policymakers to remember that:
- The current systems are fully auditable and secure. Accuracy can be verified for each terminal through electronic ballot records already stored within the terminals and with random audits of polling locations. Current review, testing practices and procedures would detect any rogue, malicious or fraudulent code.
- Managing the receipts raises some needs worth considering, such as physical storage space, mechanical printer maintenance, increased costs in hardware and election logistics, as well as additional procedures required for both the voter and the poll workers.
What do you think is stopping the U.S. from 100 percent embracing voting via kiosks? Leave your comments below.
Photos: Intel Free Press