Wall Street Journal
Some Former Backers of Technology
Seek Return to Paper Ballots,
By JEANNE CUMMINGS
May 12, 2006; Page A4
WASHINGTON -- Some advocates of a 2002 law mandating
upgrades of the nation's voting machinery now worry the overhaul is making
With the 2006 midterm elections approaching, proponents of
the Help America Vote Act are filing lawsuits to block some state and election
officials' efforts to comply with the act.
The Help America Vote Act called for upgrading election
equipment to guard against another contested outcome such as the 2000
presidential vote. Among the flaws in balloting almost six years ago were
antiquated hand-operated voting machines and punch-card ballots that were
difficult to read. To redress that, members of Congress pushed for
modernization, which could include touch-screen voting machines, on which
ballots are cast and recorded solely electronically. At the time, the
electronic voting machines were seen as a reliable contrast to the older
The lawsuits -- nine so far -- coincide with a stampede by
state and county officials to spend $3 billion allocated by Congress to help
pay for upgrades. To comply with the Help America Vote Act, a number of states
and dozens of counties purchased touch-screen voting machines. The deadline for
spending the money is tied to each state's 2006 primary dates.
Arizona was sued this week over such purchases and Colorado
election officials are likely to be sued next week.
The Arizona lawsuit seeks to block the purchase of
electronic-voting machines that critics say are vulnerable to fraud and prone
to inaccurate tabulations. Another complaint is that it is more difficult to
recount ballots cast on electronic-voting machines than paper ones.
The Help America Vote Act "has been turned on its head
and it's causing more problems than solutions at this point," says Lowell
Finley, a San Francisco lawyer and cofounder of Voter Action, a nonpartisan
organization that is bringing some of the lawsuits.
Makers of the new electronic-voting machines and local
election officials acknowledge glitches with the new equipment, but say most
problems result from human error, not technology. "This technology has
been used effectively for 10 to 15 years," says David Bear, a spokesman
for Diebold Inc., a maker of electronic-voting equipment.
Jan Brewer, Arizona's secretary of state, calls the
lawsuit's allegations "unsubstantiated" and said electronic machines
are needed to allow disabled voters to cast their ballots privately and
efficiently. "I have referred this matter to the attorney general and have
asked him to seek a dismissal as soon as possible," she says.
Still, the 2004 presidential campaign and some early primary
elections this year have provided evidence that the machines don't always work
smoothly. And several states, after experiencing problems with touch-screen
electronic systems, abandoned them to return to optically scanned paper
ballots, already commonly used for absentee balloting. Typically, paper ballots
require a voter to use a pencil to fill in a circle. The system is less costly
to buy and maintain, and provides a paper record of ballots that can be
reviewed in close or disputed elections.
Two governors have taken steps to curb the problems linked
to electronic voting machines. New Mexico's Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson
found his state in the national spotlight in 2004, when its election-night
tallying of electronic voting was tardy and confusing. This year, he pushed
through legislation mandating paper ballots -- which had been electronically
scanned -- throughout the state. Maryland's Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich in
February called for change after seeing a jump in the cost of maintaining and
storing the sensitive electronic machines. Costs are anticipated to grow to
$9.5 million next year from $858,000 in 2001.
Critics of the touch-screen voting method are following two
lines of attack: the machines are unreliable and some local election officials
have become too dependent on an industry that already has too much control over
testing and operating the sophisticated equipment.
A North Carolina early voting test in the 2002 general
election of six touch-screen machines made by Election Systems & Software
Inc. uncovered a software problem that
led to 436 uncounted votes. Local officials were further frustrated when a
company representative acknowledged that they had seen the glitch before in a
nearby county -- and hadn't shared the information. Ken Fields, spokesman for
ES&S, of Omaha, Neb., said the problem stemmed from an "obscure
technical issue" that made some machines function as if their memory was
full. The glitch was solved by Election
Day, he said.
In Indiana, an ES&S employee alerted local-election
officials that another ES&S worker had installed unauthorized software on
the machines before the election. That and other disputes led to a
multimillion-dollar settlement. Mr. Fields said it was "a mistake" to
alter the software. "We could have done a better job communicating with
the county," he said.
In other cases, investigations have found that problems were
caused by inexperienced election workers. In Illinois's recent primary,
election officials in one precinct inserted a ballot improperly and paper jams
caused breakdowns on other machines.
"Perfect shouldn't be the death of good," says Mr.
Bear, who contends there's plenty of evidence showing electronic machines
perform far better than Florida's much-lampooned punch ballots and antiquated
lever ballots. "There have always been issues with elections. Technology didn't introduce those
issues," he said. Despite common charges
that the machines lack adequate security, no cases have emerged proving that a
hacker or an insider has or could electronically manipulate the vote.
Still, computer-science experts argue that the systems lack
protection. And former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former
President Jimmy Carter, who were co-chairmen of the bipartisan Commission on
Federal Election Reform, warned in their 2005 final report that it could
happen. "Software can be modified maliciously before being installed into
individual voting machines. There is no reason to trust insiders in the
election industry any more than in other industries," they found.
Write to Jeanne Cummings at firstname.lastname@example.org
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