Groups Call for E-Voting Paper Trail

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WASHINGTON -- Members of and Common Cause are calling for the U.S. Congress to move ahead with legislation that would require a verified paper trail for voting, as much of the country moves toward using electronic voting machines.

Representatives of the two groups want Congress to act on the Voter Confidence and Accessibility Act, which would require paper copies of each voter's results when using an electronic voting machine. The paper copies, which voters could see after voting but would not leave the voting area, would be used for vote recounts.

Cause for Concern?

After confusion caused by paper-based ballots in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. The law requires states to create computerized voter registration databases and replace punch-card and lever voting systems.

Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) says he sponsored the Voter Confidence and Accessibility Act because of concerns that electronic voting systems lack accountability.

"The reason we're doing this is to restore confidence in the system," Holt said at a press conference this week. "You must support this legislation. Otherwise, you have, in effect, outlawed recounts." The bill has 134 co-sponsors in the House and four in the Senate, mostly Democrats.

Some voting-machine vendors and voting officials have opposed paper verified ballots, however. Among the objections: printers can jam or otherwise fail, causing voting machines to go down during elections; and adding printing systems to e-voting machines can be expensive, resulting in delays to e-voting implementations. In the meantime, punch-card systems will continue to leave thousands of votes unrecorded, says Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University.

"Electronic voting, while not perfect, is the best option out there," Tokaji said during a March lunch on e-voting in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Information Technology Association of America. "The net effect is likely to discourage counties from going to electronic machines at all." The ITAA represents several e-voting machine vendors.

Past Problems

Tokaji, a former staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, says a paper trail would not have solved a problem in the California counties where voting machines malfunctioned in the March primaries. Voters there were turned away because the machines were not working, and an unknown number simply never returned to cast their votes.

"I'm in favor of some sort of voter verifiable audit trail, but not of locking in place a particular method ... before it's been fully tested," he said at a second ITAA lunch in California.

Some printer systems could cost up to $1000 per voting machine, Tokaji says, although officials dispute that cost.

But Jeremy Epstein, a technology advisor to and senior director for product security at webMethods, says possibilities of paper jams are small, compared to other potential problems with voting machines. ATMs or gas pumps have few problems with their receipt printers, he says.

"I use an ATM fairly often, and I don't see ATMs jamming up very often," he says.

Epstein downplays ITAA's opposition to paper trails, noting that nearly 1800 IT workers have signed a petition in support of a verified voting trail. "[ITAA members] aren't interested in correct technology--they're interested in selling machines," Epstein says.

U.S. election officials shouldn't wait for widespread problems with e-voting machines before allowing a way to check votes against a paper trail, Epstein and other speakers at the press conference say. In the November 2003 election in Fairfax County, Virginia, about 1 percent of one candidate's votes were subtracted instead of adding to her total, and with no paper trail, there's no way to know if the problem was fully fixed, Epstein says.

"Subtle problems will remain undetected," he adds. "For every problem we catch, there may be hundreds of problems we don't fix."

James Niccolai of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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