Lehigh University will join with the Public Opinion Institute at Muhlenberg College to measure the attitudes of Pennsylvania voters toward the new electronic voting machines that will be deployed nationwide for the mid-terms election. Results are expected to be released during the first week of October.
At issue is how much trust voters have in the new systems, particularly when compared to consumer comfort level with other electronic transactions, such as shopping and banking.
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 two high-visibility races. Republican incumbent Rick Santorum is being challenged for his Senate seat by State Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., the son of the former governor; and Democratic governor Ed Rendell is fending off a challenge from political newcomer Lynn Swann, a former Pittsburgh Steeler and member of the pro football Hall of Fame.
Many Pennsylvania counties (including both Lehigh and Northampton counties) introduced electronic voting machines to voters in the May ’06 primary. This survey represents the first effort to gauge state voters’ perceptions and attitudes since the machines were pressed into service this past spring.
The timing of the survey 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 this week, emergency legislation was proposed by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Russ Feingold (D-Neb.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) to provide paper ballots for voters who are reluctant to use new electronic voting machines.
Dan Lopresti, associate professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh and e-voting expert, served as advisor on the e-voting survey, along 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.
“This survey will provide a window into voters’ attitudes about the use of these machines,” says Munson, who also is in the process of developing a social science data center at Lehigh. “Another very real concern is whether or not unease about these machines will accelerate a process of depolitization on the part of many potential voters because of a lack of faith in the system.”
Adds Borick: “Faith in the outcome of an election is essential to a functioning democracy. Any significant level of distrust in the results undermines confidence in our election process.”
Since 2002, dozens of states across the country have purchased electronic voting machines to comply with the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which was designed to phase out lever and punch-card machines after the Florida “hanging chads” debacle during the 2000 presidential election and recount.
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.