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Pa. voters on e-voting: Trust, but verify

A survey conducted by Lehigh University and the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in late September found that, when it comes to e-voting, Pennsylvania voters are following former President Ronald Reagan’s famous adage: Trust, but verify.

The survey found that voters overwhelmingly agree on the importance of voters having the right to verify on paper that their vote is being counted fairly and accurately. The findings cut across all demographic divides, including party affiliation.

Other major survey findings include:

• The commonwealth’s electorate also overwhelmingly believes every Pennsylvania county should use the same kind of voting machine.

• While the majority of voters believe electronic voting systems have been carefully tested and are secure from tampering, more than a third believe it would be easy to rig the systems to alter election results and almost two-thirds do not have a lot of trust that they will accurately count their vote.

• Overall, voters trust electronic voting machines much less than they do ATM machines, but more than they trust making Internet purchases securely or being accurately screened at airport security checkpoints.

"Pennsylvania voters make it quite clear they believe there is a need for a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail,” says Dan Lopresti, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh and e-voting expert who collaborated on the project with Ziad Munson, assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh; and Chris Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College and director of the college’s Institute of Public Opinion.

“It is reassuring to see that the warning flags raised by the computer security community have not been missed, at least by voters,” Lopresti adds. “One can only hope that our elected and appointed public officials take note and demand that the vendors of these systems take action before the worst-case scenario so many of us fear plays out in a real election."

“An extraordinary amount of agreement among regular voters”

Borick, a frequently consulted expert on political polling, concludes that the electorate sees both promise and peril in the introduction of e-voting systems.

“For their part, Pennsylvania voters express moderate levels of confidence in the new systems and believe they will make voting easier,” Borick says. “At the same time, they overwhelmingly support ensuring that the machines show voters paper verification of the votes they cast.”

That view, he adds, “reflects the importance placed on the voting process in a democratic system, as well as knowledge of past problems with voting fraud and a general wariness of technological innovation.”

Adds Munson: “These findings demonstrate that Democratic and Republican voters are equally concerned about the erosion of the democratic process in recent years. There is an extraordinary amount of agreement among regular voters. The results indicate that the adoption of voter verified paper audit trail systems will be important to the public's trust of the country's democratic process in the coming years.”

Pennsylvania has joined dozens of states in purchasing touch-screen electronic voting systems to comply with the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which was designed to phase out lever and punch-card machines after the Florida “hanging chads” debacle during the 2000 presidential election and recount.

First collaborative survey between Lehigh and Muhlenberg

The survey measuring voter attitudes comes at a time when the eyes of political observers are focused on Pennsylvania, a perennial battleground state that is currently supplying the backdrop for high-visibility races for the governorship and the U.S. Senate.

The timing of this survey—the first collaborative survey venture between Lehigh and Muhlenberg—also dovetails with a number of recent news reports, which indicate growing concerns about e-voting that include insecure machinery and improper procedures to safeguard the sanctity of the vote.

In late September alone, a widely publicized report from Princeton University computer expert Ed Felten showed that a hacker with basic knowledge of computers was able to break into and alter vote totals on a Diebold voting machine in less than a minute. And, just last week, emergency legislation was proposed by U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., and John Kerry, D-Mass., to provide paper ballots for voters who are reluctant to use new electronic voting machines.

Concerns about security of the machines were first raised by academics and voting experts—including Lopresti and his Lehigh colleagues—followed by election officials. The concerns became more urgent after the new technology led to widespread problems in several state primaries held in Ohio, Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland and elsewhere.

The Lehigh University/Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion survey sampled more than 523 households throughout the state from Sept. 18-25. It has a margin of error of 4.3 percent.

A full report of survey findings can be viewed in PDF form (Adobe Acrobat required) here.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, October 04, 2006

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