Oct. 12: Bye-Bye Buttons
Bernalillo County, N.M., might join the touch-screen bandwagon. The Albuquerque Tribune reported that the county commission was scheduled to vote on whether to buy new voting machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems to replace its old push-button Danahers (known popularly at one time as the Shouptronics), by early next year. The county would have to request a $3.6 million no-interest loan from the state to buy the machines, the paper reported, noting that another $1 million or so would come from federal funds authorized by the Help America Vote Act.
Oct. 10: An Academic Voice
Ted Selker, co-director of the voting technology project at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a commentary in Newsday that electronic machines are indeed safer than paper ballots -- as long as their use is supervised and monitored. "The ideal voting machine would demonstrate to the voter that his ballot has been included in the final count before he leaves the booth," Selker wrote. "But even without that assurance, it's important to remember that since Thomas Edison first experimented with an electronic voting device in 1869, each introduction of technology to voting has been challenged by those fearful of its being used to change votes. The best protection has always been human oversight."
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The nature of the controversy surrounding electronic voting has changed little since reports surfaced in the past year questioning its security and reliability. What has changed is the urgency. With time running out between now and Election Day, more activists, politicians and -- most importantly -- voters want firm answers about whether the technology that more than 50 million people will use to choose their president this year will record their choices correctly.
Most experts on either side of the issue acknowledge that it would be virtually impossible to modify paperless machines to include voter-verified paper records, but that is not stopping an increasingly vocal grassroots movement from trying to make that change happen before Nov. 2. In at least one case in Florida, a state with a unique and notorious history of Election Day troubles, a federal judge ruled that a paper trail is a must.
washingtonpost.com has presented ongoing coverage of some of the effects that the electronic voting debate is having on the D.C. metropolitan area. Here we offer a roundup of some of the major electronic voting issues taking place with increasing frequency around the country in the runup to the election. Many of these stories reflect an increasing awareness in the media and among voters of the challenges facing the voting process throughout the nation, coupled with a realization that although the debate is more topical than ever, its resolution will not come until after the nation goes back to the polls for what is anticipated to be one of the closest presidential elections in many years.
The most recent entries are listed first.
Lest anyone suspect Selker of pursuing a hidden agenda, the Caltech/MIT project is one of the few groups of experts on electronic voting that isn't in the horse-racing business. Selker and some of his colleagues believe that problems with e-voting equipment could cause problems on Election Day, but no more or less than other glitches that have always marred election results.
His other advice is to be an informed voter, one who "can guard against the three most prevalent ways that non-absentee ballot votes were lost in 2000: registration problems, confusion over ballot design and lost ballots. A voter needs to check his registration and make sure he goes to the right polling place, make sure he has voted for the candidate of his choice, and give himself enough time to vote carefully and alert poll workers if problems occur."
Washington residents might not have to worry so much about electronic voting, but some activists say paper trail procedures need to be put in place just the same, the Bremerton, Wash.-based Sun reported. Three-quarters of the state votes absentee, but Kitsap County Elections Manager Dolores Gilmore told reporter Susie Oh her ideal plan for a voting situation: buy touch-screen machines for people who vote in person, use optical-scan devices for absentee ballots and buy systems that allow disabled voters to mark their ballots without assistance.
Oct. 7: Georgia Kvetch
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is taking readers' comments on touch-screen voting as part of its Web site's front-page, ongoing election coverage. The site asks readers whether they trust Georgia's touch-screen machines, all manufactured by Diebold, to accurately record their votes.
The blog had already garnered 93 responses in little more than a day, and most of the responses were negative. Here's one: "I have worked in computer and network security for as long as it has existed. The blind faith that our Secretary of State places in these machines is beyond my comprehension."
NBC affiliate WXIA in Atlanta carried a news report on its site featuring Secretary of State Cathy Cox defending the use of Diebold's voting machines, which are in place throughout the state. "There has not been one incident of election equipment tampering in the whole United states of America with electronic voting, despite a lot of the conspiracy theories that you will hear from people," Cox said in the report, which also features a brief text excerpt. The Rome News-Tribune also carried a comment from Cox: "Naysayers and conspiracy theorists have said it won't work, but Ive had older voters tell me they like the machines so much theyre going to try and get e-mail now."
Combining optical-scan voting machines with newer paperless machines for a dual voting system is causing some hiccups in Hawaii, but election officials say that none of the glitches would be enough to change the outcome of an election. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin said that officials are going through a "learning" process after irregularities turned up in the state's primary election that used optical-scan machines made by Election Systems & Software and the newer eSlate designed by Hart InterCivic. "The Sept. 21 report listed total turnout for the special election, or nonpartisan races, as 259,014, but the Sept. 23 report listed the total turnout for the special election as 252,630," the newspaper reported. "The new calculations also raised the final turnout for the partisan races -- not all who voted in the special elections voted on the partisan side of the ballot -- to 248,731 from 248,683, an increase of 48 votes."
The Fair Election Project, a unit of San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange, plans to monitor elections in the United States this year as it normally would in "developing" nations around the world. Its purpose in sending representatives to Georgia, of course, is to see whether the Diebold touch-screen machines will disenfranchise registered voters, Wired.com reported. From the Web site: "'In Georgia, they do not have printers installed to produce the voter-verified paper receipt, or paper trail,' said John Gibler, who led the Georgia team for Fair Election. 'This has caused a lot of concern in the citizen groups we met with.' Monitor Elijah Rubvuta, executive director of the Foundation for Democratic Process in Zambia, said Georgia officials could allay voters' fears by requiring the state's voting machines to produce a paper trail. But there has been no indication that Georgia officials will make the move that California and other states have made."
Oct. 1: Diebold Scolded
Diebold Election Systems misused a controversial copyright law when it tried to force students at Swarthmore College to remove from the Internet copies of internal memos showing that Diebold executives knew about security problems in the company's touch-screen voting machines, a federal judge ruled last Thursday. Wired reported that the judge ordered Diebold to pay damages and legal fees to two students and Online Policy Group, a nonprofit Internet service provider.
"Diebold sent several cease-and-desist letters to the students and threatened them with litigation, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. Online Policy Group was also threatened after someone posted a link to the memos on a website hosted by the ISP. Diebold said the memos were stolen from a company server and that posting them or even linking to them violated the copyright law," Wired reported. "Judge Jeremy Fogel wrote in his decision that 'no reasonable copyright holder could have believed that portions of the e-mail archive discussing possible technical problems with Diebold's voting machines were protected by copyright.'"
Sept. 30: Revolving Door
Solano County, Calif.'s new elections manager knows from electronic voting. She is Deborah Seiler, former West Coast sales representative for Diebold Election Systems. As reported by the Fairfield-Suisun City Daily Republic, Seiler was the Diebold rep who sold almost 1,200 touch-screen voting machines to the county. Solano officials used them in one election, then canceled the contract and sent back the machines. The county will use optical-scan voting machines.
Seiler is certainly a knowledgeable choice, as the Republic wrote, noting that she used to work for Diebold rival Election Systems & Software. The Associated Press reported that she previously was the state's election chief under former secretary of state Fong Eu. On the other hand, the Diebold situation did not go over very well in Solano County, as Wired reported: "When the state banned the machines because of Diebold's business practices, the county had to find a replacement for the machines and pay Diebold more than $400,000 to get out of its contract."
The Republic quoted one particularly irate official: "I am so angry," District 1 Supervisor Barbara Kondylis said. "And it's done without telling us. I got it from another employee." It also provided the flipside comment from Chief Information Officer Ira Rosenthal, who said that Seiler was the best person for the job, but suspected that "Seiler's hiring might ruffle the feathers of supervisors who were critical of Diebold before and after the March primary, when the company's Accu-Vote TSx machines were used for the first and last time."
A federal appeals court judge earlier this week overturned a lower court's ruling that threw out a lawsuit filed by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) that would require touch-screen machines in Florida to be equipped with printers for a voter-verified paper trail. The Miami Herald (registration required) in an editorial said that the appeals court judge's decision was the right one, but that it will have no effect by Election Day.
Secretary of State Glenda Hood has "ordered work on a new rule by the Nov. 2 elections that would explain how touch-screen machines' votes can be recounted manually. Would that she had issued this ruling in the first place. For there is no chance that the machines can be adapted with printers to produce a paper trail by November. The state must certify the printers before using them in order to validate the vote -- and no certification has been done. If [federal Judge James] Cohn were to rule in favor of a paper trail, it could put added pressure on the state to establish a single uniform standard of tallying votes in a recount. But such a ruling still wouldn't leave time to make the needed improvements to guarantee voters in 15 counties that their vote will be counted -- and recounted, if necessary -- accurately. Unless, of course, voters resort to absentee ballots."
Maryland state elections officials said that a stray Diebold AccuVote-TS touch-screen voting machine was delivered to its headquarters, but could not confirm reports of other abandoned machines being discovered on a Baltimore sidewalk and in a city bar, the Associated Press reported in a story that ran in the Baltimore Sun. "Joseph Torre, voting systems and procurement director for the agency, confirmed that one machine was found, but assured board members it did not belong to Maryland." Also from Torre: "It wasn't one of ours. All 16,009 units are present and accounted for."
Sept. 29: Pacific Paper Trail
Electronic voting machines in California will be required to produce paper records for people to verify how they voted starting in 2006, under a bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) on Monday. The switchover is set to begin next January when the secretary of state will no longer be allowed to certify machines that do not include the ability to print out paper records. The law, sponsored by state Sens. Ross Johnson (R) and Don Perata (D), essentially codifies changes that California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (D) made to the voting system in response to reports of touch-screen voting irregularities. Several counties in California were required to stop using the systems until they complied with Shelley's mandate. Federal Computer Week reported that the law will not affect this year's presidential election, but it is expected to be in play for the March 2006 primary when U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) is expected to run for reelection.
Government Technology in its California story reported that New Hampshire and Oregon have laws that require voting systems to allow manual recounts and that Illinois has a law requiring voter-verified paper trails. It also noted that Nevada is using an all-electronic voting system this November that includes the paper trail. Other states that will require paper trails by 2006 include California, Missouri, Ohio and Washington, Government Technology reported.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry Adams ruled on Tuesday that elections officials in Duval County, Fla., must provide touch-screen voting machines in time for this November's election so that blind and physically disabled people can choose their candidates without someone else having to help them. The Florida Times-Union reported that the decision affects 57 precincts in the county, which includes the city of Jacksonville. City officials plan to appeal the ruling. As Jacksonville Assistant General Counsel Scott Makar told the paper: "It will be a virtual impossibility. ... If we ordered them right now, they'd take a month to get here." The Times-Union also reported that the cost estimates would range from $275,000 into the millions of dollars.
The Associated Press reported that the judge said "lawyers for disabled voters provided enough evidence at a hearing last week to persuade him to issue the order." Also from the AP: "The ruling stems from a 2001 suit in which three disabled voters alleged the county's optical scan machines didn't allow them to vote without help. The city must comply even while it appeals, said Ari Rothman, attorney for the disabled voters. 'We're going to ride them pretty hard,' he said. 'We'll do what we have to to make sure they comply.'"