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Paper Makes a Comeback as Electronic Elections Spur Opposition

 

April 8 (Bloomberg) -- Meet the next big thing in paperless voting: paper.

 

Voting-rights groups and computer scientists, concluding that a tangible record is essential to any electronic voting system, are persuading a growing number of U.S. lawmakers and election officials either to reject paperless voting machines or to require fitting them with costly add-on printers to help verify results.

 

Even Ohio, home to Diebold Inc., the world's leading maker of paperless machines, plans to spend $106 million in federal funds exclusively on optical-scan systems that require voters to mark their choice on a paper ballot.

 

After two tight presidential elections in a row, each producing complaints about voting machinery, proponents say a paper trail is the only way to convince voters that elections are safeguarded from technological defect or high-tech fraud.

 

``It's not sufficient for elections to be accurate,'' said David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and founder of VerifiedVoting.org, which advocates paper-trail laws. ``People have to know they are accurate.''

 

So far, 12 states require a vote-by-vote paper trail, half of them as a result of laws passed in the last year. Similar bills are pending in about 20 other state legislatures, and five bills introduced in Congress would require paper trails in all states, according to electionline.org, a non-partisan Washington- based clearinghouse on election reform.

 

At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and local purchases of new voting equipment. The purchases are being spurred by the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential election.

 

The Battle of Florida

 

Bush's 537-vote Florida victory that year over Democrat Al Gore, which gave him the presidency, came after protests and legal challenges over the design and counting of punch-card ballots. The election pointed up weaknesses in the nation's hodge- podge system of paper ballots, punch-card voting machines and other mechanisms for recording ballots.

 

Under the 2002 law, 30 states are sharing $300 million in federal aid to replace old punch-card and mechanical-lever machines in time for next year's congressional elections. An additional $1.7 billion has gone to all 50 states to meet other requirements, including one that each polling place have at least one machine that lets disabled voters cast ballots independently and privately.

 

Paperless machines -- known as direct recording electronic machines, or DREs -- capture votes electronically rather than relying on a paper ballot. Voters enter their selections by pressing buttons on or near an electronic screen. Their main competition is optical scanners: Voters make their selection on a paper ballot, which is then fed into a computerized reader. The paper ballot can be stored for use in a recount, if needed.

 

Complicating Efforts

 

The trend toward paper has complicated the work of some election officials. Counties that moved swiftly to embrace paperless machines now find themselves out of compliance with new state laws requiring paper trails. Two Ohio counties, for instance, are suing the state to defend their paperless machines.

 

Advocates for disabled voters also are unhappy, saying the emphasis on paper ballots undermines efforts to let people with visual, physical and other disabilities vote without assistance. Voters with disabilities now often need help from poll workers, so their choices aren't secret.

 

Jim Dickson, director of the Disability Vote Project at the Washington-based American Association of People with Disabilities, said only paperless touch-screen machines can fulfill the 2002 law's requirement that all voters be allowed to cast ballots ``in a private and independent manner.'' Allegations that electronic elections are especially prone to fraud constitute ``a Y2k scare all over again,'' Dickson said.

 

Optional Equipment

 

Responding to the increasing demand for paper trails, three leading manufacturers of DREs now offer printers as an optional add-on to new or existing machines. The printers create a running vote-by-vote record that the electronic tally can be checked against. Alfie Charles, vice president for business development at Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., said a printer attachment adds about $1,000 to the cost of his company's machines, which is typically $3,000 to $3,500.

 

While such printers ``are not an essential component of an accurate and reliable election, they do add value for voter confidence and an additional layer of security,'' Charles said. Sequoia, which was acquired March 9 by Smartmatic Corp. of Boca Raton, Florida, pioneered paper-trail-enabled touch-screen machines by providing 2,000 of them to Nevada under a $9 million contract awarded in 2003.

 

Computer Memory

 

A problem with electronic voting in Carteret County, North Carolina, last November lent momentum to those pushing a paper trail. A touch-screen machine ran out of computer memory before the polls closed, causing 4,438 votes to be lost.

 

Jack Gerbel, president of the company that made the machine, Unilect Corp. of Dublin, California, said a setting in its computer should have been adjusted more than three years earlier. It's unclear whether the county or the company was at fault, he said.

 

The Carteret glitch, though accidental, provided fuel for critics of electronic elections such as Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

 

``If you don't have the paper trail, it's impossible to detect whether the machines are rigged,'' said Rubin, who is studying whether hackers might hide ``malicious code'' in machines to fix an election.

 

Security

 

Rubin co-wrote a 2003 report that questioned the security of computer code used by Diebold, the North Canton, Ohio, company that bills itself as ``the world leader in electronic voting equipment.''

 

Though Diebold contested the findings, a year later it agreed to pay California $2.6 million to settle a lawsuit charging that the company falsely claimed its machines weren't vulnerable to tampering.

 

David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold, said the company never opposed adding paper-ballot verification to its touch-screen machines. ``The reason nobody provided it before was nobody thought of it before,'' he said. Paperless machines have been used in hundreds of elections ``and always performed well,'' he said.

 

Diebold drew criticism from Democrats during the most recent presidential campaign after its chief executive, Walden O'Dell, sent a fundraising letter in 2003 that said he was ``committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes'' to Bush. O'Dell later said he regretted that remark. Shares of Diebold, which is also the world's second-largest seller of automated teller machines, have risen 3.3 percent this year and gained $1.40 to $57.58 yesterday.

 

Speedier Tally

 

Hesitancy to go paperless is boosting optical-scan machines, which became widely used in the 1970s to speed ballot counting. Many states and counties ``are looking toward the optical scanners as a fallback,'' said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Washington consulting firm.

 

Dill said optical scanners are the best current option because they have a built-in paper trail, have been used and studied more than touch-screens and are cheaper.

 

In Ohio, where 71 of 88 counties use punch-card or mechanical lever machines, a 2003 state plan said officials would be allowed to buy either DREs or optical scanners.

 

Ohio's Orders

 

After state law mandated a paper trail, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell said in January that counties may purchase only optical-scan machines made by Diebold or Election Systems & Software Inc. of Omaha, Nebraska.

 

Three Ohio counties went to court to challenge Blackwell's decision. Two of them, Franklin and Lake, already use paperless electronic machines.

 

In Georgia and Maryland, where officials made statewide purchases of Diebold touch-screen machines, critics continue to fight paperless voting. Bills to require a paper trail are pending in both state legislatures.

 

Cathy Cox, Georgia's secretary of state, has staunchly defended the state's decision. In a March 10 newspaper column, she wrote, ``Our touch-screen voting system is dramatically more accurate than the antiquated systems that preceded it.''

 

To contact the reporter on this story:

Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

 

To contact the editor responsible for this story:

Joe Winski at jwinski@bloomberg.net

 

Last Updated: April 8, 2005 00:14 EDT

 

2005 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved.

 

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