High-tech voting accessory: Paper
USA TODAY | August 10, 2005
By Jim Drinkard
WASHINGTON — Three years into a national debate over the security and reliability of computerized voting machines, the skeptics are winning.
In the past month, legislatures in five states — Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Oregon — have passed laws requiring computer-based voting machines to produce a paper backup that can be verified by the voter, according to Electionline.org, which monitors voting systems. That brings to 25 the number of states that require a paper trail.
Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia are considering similar legislation. (Graphic: States' paper trails)
Paper printouts could be used to verify the electronic count, or as a fail-safe measure in case a recount is needed.
Advocates of requiring a paper trail say it is a response to voters' concerns about whether their ballots are being accurately tallied. Those concerns, they say, stem from the nation's traumatic experience with the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida and a continuing close split in the nation's politics.
"We're not getting many landslides these days, so it's crucial that the votes be counted accurately," says Will Doherty, director of VerifiedVoting.org, which lobbies for paper trails on voting machines.
Some election experts fear that paper backup records will add a layer of complexity to an already delicate system. That could lead to even worse problems in the 2006 elections, such as jammed printers and long voting lines, they say.
"The unintended consequence of a (paper trail) mandate could diminish, rather than enhance, voter confidence," says Conny McCormack, who runs elections in the nation's largest voting jurisdiction, Los Angeles County.
"When we start using paper trails in a live election, all of these problems are going to become apparent," says Linda Lamone, administrator of the Maryland Board of Elections. "Problems with paper ballots are going to cause a whole new cloud over the system."
One example already has cropped up. In a California test July 20 of touch-screen voting machines with add-on printers, nearly 20% of the machines experienced problems, including paper jams and computer crashes. The machines were made by Diebold, a leading manufacturer of touch-screen computer voting equipment.
California has since banned the machines, and the test sent qualms through states such as Mississippi and Utah, which had decided to buy machines like those California rejected.
"That just threw holy hell into everybody's bonnet," says Kimball Brace of Election Data Services, a firm that monitors the kinds of voting systems in use across the nation.
Maryland was among the first states to go to all-electronic voting after the problems of the 2000 election, and its experience has been good, Lamone says. "If the proper security measures and procedures are put into place, it's the best system that there is," she says.
The state is lining up studies by two universities to look into the reliability of Maryland's Diebold machines and help decide whether a paper trail needs to be added. So far, Lamone says, the debate "has been based on assumptions, and not facts. We want to know what the facts are."
Only one state, Nevada, has used touch-screen voting with a paper backup in a statewide election, and that was last year. McCormack, who observed the Nevada voting, says most voters she saw didn't bother to check the printout.
If a close election goes to a recount, disputes could arise over whether the electronic vote or the paper version is the official record. Paper could be lost, and recounts could take weeks, Lamone says.
More and more states are making decisions about voting technology to meet a Jan. 1 deadline in the Help America Vote Act, which provides federal money to replace outmoded voting machines.
Brace notes that whenever localities adopt new voting technology, the first year it is used holds the greatest risk of problems.
"There's still the potential for a train wreck coming next year," he says.