September, 2005


Officials: Recount law is obsolete


Election administrators warn paper records are also prone to fraud


By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER

Inside Bay Area


Elections officials across California are waging 11th-hour opposition to using paper records for verifying electronic ballots, partly arguing that the printouts as well as the electronic voting machines themselves are vulnerable to fraudulent programming.


Writing to the governor recently, the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials suggested that fully computerized, touchscreen voting machines, known as Direct Electronic Recording devices or DREs, should not be checked by recounts, the method used for all other voting technologies in the state.


For 40 years, California law has required elections officials to perform a manual tally of one percent of ballots in any election, to verify the accuracy of computerized vote totals.


As a paperless technology, touchscreens until recently provided no record to count. But in the last two years, California and 25 other states have required all touchscreens to print out a voter's choices, to be reviewed by the voter and presum-ably used in recounts.


But elections officials say the printouts are jam-prone, create administrative nightmares and shouldn't be used. Rather, they say, touchscreens have made California's manual recount law obsolete.


"The law needs to be changed," said Janice Atkinson, Sonoma County assistant registrar of voters, the correspondence secretary for the election officials' association. "The one-percent (tally) still needs to apply to electronic ballot counting systems, but there needs to be some other form of verification for DREs."


Sen. Debra Bowen considers that "an enormous mistake."


"The suggestion that we would remove protections that have worked for 40 years, I find that frightening," said Bowen, D-Marina Del Rey, chairwoman of the Senate Elections and Apportionment Committee.


Unlike other voting methods, which record votes on paper ballots and count them by computer, touchscreen voting systems record and count votes, using software that no state or local official or member of the public can examine.


"This technology is a lot less transparent than other voting technologies," said Bowen. "The more you do electronically, the less the public is able to observe the process."


Fully computerized touchscreens soared in popularity after the 2000 elections and a crisis over discerning voter choices on punchcard ballots. Touchscreens have none of this uncertainty; a vote is recorded in memory or not. But starting in 2003, computer scientists voiced concerns that relying entirely on computers for voting opened new vulnerabilities to programming error and fraud. Their solution was the voter-verified paper trail.


In their letter to the governor, elections officials say that touchscreens can be fraudulently programmed to misrepresent the paper record, as well. Besides, using the paper record for recounts is a bad idea. They prefer substituting something called parallel monitoring, in which state officials remove a certain number of touchscreens on Election Day and conduct a scripted mock election, then check whether the votes were recorded properly.


The problem, said Bowen, is that parallel monitoring checks a small sample of machines on the recording of votes but is silent on whether votes are tallied accurately. Recounting paper trails and comparing them against the electronic count captures the entire voting process, she said.


Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, said the election officials' letter was "outrageous."


"It's pretty startling that they're admitting there's a potential for discrepancies between the electronic vote count and the paper-trail count. But we don't want those sorted out in the back room but publicly because we want voter confidence," Alexander said.


Instead, she said, elections officials complain that verifying computerized voting with paper would be "onerous and time consuming," according to the association's letter.


"What they fail to realize is that elections are not conducted for their convenience but for transferring power between the people and government," she said.


Contact Ian Hoffman at


2005 ANG Newspapers



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