By Susan Q. Stranahan

On November 2, millions of Americans will vote on computers, many of which may be vulnerable to partisan hackers, disgruntled poll workers, or anyone else with a desire to alter the outcome of the election, writes Ronnie Dugger in the current issue of The Nation. “The result,” he says, “could be the failure of an American presidential election and its collapse into suspicions, accusations and a civic fury that will make Florida 2000 seem like a family spat in the kitchen.”

Dugger’s detailed analysis of the problems of electronic voting and the potential for fraud and error would seem to be a crucial election story of 2004, full of the stuff journalists love — hints of skullduggery, cronyism, and conflicts of interest. But, with a few exceptions, the advent of e-voting has remained an issue hovering persistently beneath the media’s radar.

The stories that have appeared largely have been local, piecemeal and rarely rise much beyond the “he said/she said” level of reporting. As a result, the public — to the extent that it’s even aware of the controversy — is left to its own devices to figure out a complex issue, with considerable ramifications.

New York Times editorial page writer Adam Cohen is one of the very few who has delved into the subject, spending much of the year writing about the “mechanics” of democracy in a series entitled “Making Votes Count.” Electronic voting — and its lack of accountability — has been a frequent topic.

Cohen, a lawyer with an interest in politics and technology, opened his series last January with this warning:

The morning after the 2000 election, Americans woke up to a disturbing realization: Our electoral system was too flawed to say with certainty who had won. Three years later, things may actually be worse. If this year’s presidential election is at all close, there is every reason to believe that there will be another national trauma over who the rightful winner is, this time compounded by troubling new questions about the reliability of electronic voting machines.

This is no way to run a democracy.

Given the media’s lack of interest in the subject, it can also be said: This is no way to cover one, either. Come November, can you be sure that your vote will be accurately recorded? It seems a rather fundamental question that cries out for an answer.

About one-third of the expected computerized vote this fall will be tabulated by touch-screen machines that will provide no paper trail of a voter’s choices, and, as a result, are vulnerable to tampering. Writes Dugger: “The United States therefore faces the likelihood that about three out of 10 of the votes in the national election this November will be unverifiable, unauditable and unrecountable.”

In Florida, where the outcome of the 2000 presidential election remained in limbo for 36 days due to voting irregularities, more than half the state’s voters will rely on paperless touch-screen systems. Florida is a crucial swing state, with its winner garnering 27 electoral votes — 10 percent of the total needed.

Ironically, it was the chaos of the Florida returns four years ago that catapulted the nation towards electronic voting. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, and when President Bush signed it, he declared that “when problems arise in the administration of elections, we have a responsibility to fix them.” But, as the Times’ Cohen noted earlier this year, the president’s budget provided only $40 million of the $800 million promised by Congress for election improvements at the state level. Wrote Cohen: “[N]either the president nor Congress is very serious about fixing the system.”

Some states scrambled to switch to electronic voting, and for the limited federal funds to buy new equipment. About 20 percent of the nation’s 3,114 counties will have switched completely to computerized voting by November, according to Election Data Services, Inc., a Washington, D.C. research company. (Some of those machines offer a printed copy of the ballot as a backup; some do not.)

But the states also discovered that there are no federal guidelines or security standards for the equipment. That will come at a later date, long after this presidential vote. (The Election Assistance Commission, appointed by President Bush to set those standards and oversee the transition, has been slow to get organized, in part because of a lack of funding.)

The electronic voting market is dominated by a handful of companies, which stand to make huge profits from the shift to touch-screen computers and the software that runs them. Nearly 100 million votes will be cast on the computers operated by this tiny group, which has aggressively promoted its product and just as vigorously defended the secrecy and reliability of its technology.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.