Is electronic voting on its way out? For the first time in nearly three decades, there will be a decline in the number of people casting their ballots electronically, reports Election Data Services, Inc. (EDS). The Manassas, Va.-based political consulting firm reports that, compared with the 2006 election, nearly 10 million fewer voters will use e-voting machines Tuesday.

According to EDS, more than 55 million voters (about 32.6 percent of the 169 million registered in this country) in 1,068 counties nationwide (there are more than 3,100 counties in the U.S.) will be able to vote electronically, fewer than the 1,142 counties that used electronic systems in 2006.

E-voting, which lets voters choose their candidates using a touch screen computer, appears to be falling out of vogue. Over the past two years, all of the 86 counties nationwide that have changed voting systems have adopted optical scan systems rather than DRE (direct recorded election) electronic voting machines. With an optical scan voting system, voter mark their candidates on a paper ballot, which is then scanned into a computer (much the same way cashiers ring up food in a supermarket). More than 59 percent of the nation's counties will be using optical scan voting systems for this election, representing over 56.2 percent of the country's registered voters. Optical Scan systems are expected to be used in 41 states, while electronic voting systems are still in use in 26 states.

Following the highly contentious 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), [[]] designed to wean voters off of the paper ballots and hanging chads that caused so much controversy. Although HAVA set a deadline for the replacement of lever and punch card voting equipment by 2006, more than 11.3 million registered voters reside in counties that will still use lever machines or punch card ballots. For more on this e-voting controversy, check out this story from the in depth report on privacy and security.

DRE systems were designed to update voting technology into the 21st century: sending votes from the voter's finger to a secure database and allowing for quick tallies at the end of Election Day. Unfortunately, security experts have warned that e-voting systems can be hacked into and do not allow voters to double-check that they've voted for their intended candidate. As a result, the Washington Post reports, Maryland is planning to return to paper ballots in time for the 2010 midterm elections, despite a $65 million investment in electronic systems, which the state will be paying for until 2014. Similarly, in Virginia, a law passed last year prohibits areas within the state from purchasing new electronic machines in a bid to phase them out over the next few years, according to the Post.

Dan Wallach, a computer science  associate professor at Rice University in Houston,  says that electronic voting machines are vulnerable to hacking as well as "vote flipping." This occurs when a voter attempts to vote for one candidate but the machine changes his or her vote to the other candidate.

"For touch-screen voting machines, the most likely cause of this issue is miscalibration of the screens or, perhaps, a voter who is significantly taller or shorter than the person who did the calibration, since different angles of view require different calibrations," Wallach wrote in an article on the Web site for ACCURATE (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections), a voting research center funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In the pivotal battleground state of Ohio, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner commissioned a series of tests over the past year to determine whether e-voting systems are secure enough to be trusted. She concluded that these systems are not secure and has become embroiled in a number of lawsuits, including one with Premier Election Solutions, Inc., in Allen, Tex., which supplied some of the e-voting systems tested and disputed the results. The situation has gotten so heated in Ohio that last month that Brunner's offices phone lines and e-mail channels were barraged with menacing messages and even threats of harm or death. A suspicious package covered with threatening messages and containing an unidentified powder was also mailed to the Secretary of State's office.

(Image courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Lisa McDonald)