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News & Press: Feature

In Search of Voting Machines We Can Trust

Sunday, August 29, 2004   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Charles Oriez

We all are familiar with old stories of Mayor Daley supposedly holding up results in Chicago until the number of votes needed to win miraculously appeared. And Lyndon Johnson even bragged about stealing his 1948 senate election that he won by 87 votes, complete with photos of Johnson aides and a stolen ballot box. When I lived and worked in New York City democratic politics, I was an eyewitness to more than one election with some doubtful results. That included working on the Major Owens congressional race that ultimately saw his opponent sent to prison for vote tampering in 1982.

For the most part, though, voters and activists in both parties are usually confident that votes are honestly and accurately counted in elections. Florida 2000 notwithstanding, one reason for that confidence is knowing that when an election is close, and mistakes happen, recounts will correct those mistakes or confirm that there were no mistakes. Lost in the Florida distraction of that year, few people noticed the statewide recount in Colorado in a lesser seat. After Jared Polis narrowly won his State Board of Education seat, the automatic recount actually found 300 "lost" votes in Denver, which was more than the 90 votes he ultimately won his seat by statewide.

After the Florida recount fiasco of 2000, a push developed to improve voting machines nationwide. Federal hearings were held and legislation was passed aimed at ensuring that our elections continue to be honest and reliable. In many places, legislation meant electronic voting machines would be used for the first time, although as of right now no federal standards are in place for the design or use of those machines.

That confidence in honest and accurate election counts may be at risk, though. An Associated Press report on June 14 reports that in Florida, touch screen voting machines in 11 counties have a software flaw that could make manual recounts impossible in November's presidential election, according to state officials. In California, two reports by computer security experts showed the machines were vulnerable to manipulation by insiders and to hacking by outsiders. This news comes a month and a half after California's election officials decertified all current touch screen machines until counties implement changes to secure the machines temporarily or purchase machines that produce a paper trail. Also in California, there were reports of problems with some of the touch screen voting booths during the recall in March.

We need to ensure that our elections continue to be conducted using mechanisms that give voters the confidence in a fair and honest election.

The New York Times offered some interesting proposals in an early June editorial, that said in part, "If election officials want to convince voters that electronic voting can be trusted, they should be willing to make it at least as secure as slot machines. To appreciate how poor the oversight on voting systems is, it's useful to look at the way Nevada systematically ensures that electronic gambling machines in Las Vegas operate honestly and accurately. Electronic voting, by comparison, is rife with lax procedures, security risks and conflicts of interest." Among the Nevada procedures that impressed the Times were: state access to the related software; unannounced spot checks for independent testing; meticulous, constantly updated standards for gambling machines; intense scrutiny of manufacturers; an arms-length relationship between the lab that certifies gambling equipment and the manufacturers it polices, and a policy of being open to inquiries from the public; and the right by gamblers to an immediate inspection when they suspect a machine cheated them or is otherwise defective.

By comparison, all a company needs to do to get into the business of producing voting machines is to convince a county official to start buying their machines. There are no background checks to see if the company's owners have been convicted of fraud, or have close ties to political candidates or parties. The CEO of one leading voting machine firm contributed a large sum of money and pledged to do all he could to help his presidential candidate win in Ohio. And suspicions that a voting machine is defective require the voter to call a central number - which might be busy - to request an investigation that might or might not take place. In the words of The New York Times, "Voting machine standards are out of date and inadequate. Machines are still tested with standards from 2002 that have gaping security holes."

At its recently concluded national convention, the League of Women Voters adopted a position on the issue drafted by a member of its Palo Alto Chapter, Barbara Simon, who also happens to be the former president of ACM. About 800 delegates who attended the nonpartisan league's biennial convention in Washington voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that supports "voting systems and procedures that are secure, accurate, re-countable and accessible."

Nevada will be the first state this fall to use a touch screen system manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems that produces a paper trail in its primaries and early voting. Thatis, they will if they pass some additional testing. The printers failed in the early tests a few weeks ago.

California, after the problems encountered during the recall election, adopted extensive standards for touch screen balloting in June. "California is making sure that voters will be able to verify that their votes are being counted correctly," said Secretary of State Shelley.

Under the standards, the voter-verified paper trail would consist of a printout that voters could examine to confirm that the machine recorded votes accurately. Voters wouldn't be able to touch the paper receipt or leave the polls with it. Instead, the paper record would likely roll behind a glass partition, allowing the voter to accept or reject the choices presented on the ballot. Voters would be able to discard inaccurate ballots and have correct ones transferred to a secure ballot box.

According to the standards, paper-trail systems would be designed so that disabled voters, including those who can't see, could cast ballots and verify their vote in private without assistance. For non-English speakers, the records would be printed in the voter's preferred language and English for election officials.

The electronic ballots would be considered the official record. The paper ballot would be used in the 1 percent manual recount that California requires to ensure accuracy. The paper ballot would also be used in a full manual recount. If a discrepancy exists between the electronic and paper record, the paper record would prevail as the official ballot.

There are currently no federal standards to test machines that produce a paper trail. But it's possible that the Federal Election Commission, which has assumed oversight for certifying voting systems, will adopt the California standards for the nation. AITP agrees that strict standards ensuring fair and impartial elections with demonstrably accurate results are critical to maintaining voter confidence in our democracy.

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