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Government IT Review - Cynthia L. Webb

Electronic Hanging Chads?

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2004; 11:11 AM

E-voting is proving to be far from a simple fix to the voting woes that plagued the 2000 presidential race.

In fact, there appears to be a digital divide separating the promise and reality of e-voting technology, a divide evidenced by a controversial ban issued by the nation's largest state and a funding shortfall at a little-known federal agency charged with overseeing the nation's e-voting efforts.

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That agency -- the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, convened a public hearing on the e-voting controversy on Wednesday, where, as Wired reported, "activists and manufacturers of electronic voting machines clashed over whether new e-voting systems should include a voter-verifiable paper trail that auditors could use to recount votes if necessary."

The commission doesn't appear likely to intervene on the side of critics. The Associated Press reported that "the chairman of the commission said he didn't expect the bipartisan panel would issue national standards requiring paper receipts when it made preliminary recommendations next week, followed by more detailed guidelines next month."

Commission Chairman DeForest B. Soaries Jr. (R) said the panel "will not decide on what machines people will buy," according to AP. Before the hearing, Soaries gave a hint at what he thinks of the e-voting brouhaha: "The touch-screen controversy creates the impression that we have more problems than we do," he said, according to The Washington Post.

At the hearing, computer security experts voiced their concerns about using e-voting machines without any paper trail to back up the system. Johns Hopkins University's Aviel Rubin -- the Clint Eastwood of e-voting vigilantes -- "testified that the software for Accuvote systems manufactured by Diebold Inc., based in Canton, Ohio, contains 'many security flaws.' The systems are used in Georgia, Ohio and several other states. With only six months before the November election, Rubin said, the best way to guarantee the validity of results would be to give voters a paper record of their ballot so they could confirm that the machine had correctly recorded their vote. Otherwise, he warned, the machines 'must be trusted not to fail, not to have been programmed maliciously, and not to have been tampered with at any point prior to or during the election,'" Cox News Service reported.

Prior to the hearing, Rubin offered up some sound bites on current e-voting technologies. "On a spectrum of terrible to very good, we are sitting at terrible. Not only have the vendors not implemented security safeguards that are possible, they have not even correctly implemented the ones that are easy." Those quotes were carried by the AP.

Too Late, Too Expensive and Too Complicated to Stop Now

The critics have been very successful in dominating the whole voting technology debate, but there is another side to the argument that doesn't involve the manufacturers of e-voting machines -- state and local elections officials. For them, e-voting is a big step forward over other ballot types. "The most troublesome issues we've had in our state have been using paper ballots," Denise Lamb, director of elections for New Mexico, told the commission, as quoted by Federal Computer Week. "In my opinion, too much attention has been placed on technology in this debate."

According to The Washington Post, elections officials told the panel that making e-voting machines spit out paper receipts in time for the November elections "would cause chaos far worse than the security concerns it is intended to address." More from the article: "Waving a 37-inch-long receipt that would be needed for each voter on a complicated ballot, Los Angeles election chief Conny McCormack said making voters pore over the cryptic printout with small type would guarantee confusion. 'Touch screens have a proven track record of doing the best job,' she said. 'Voters are confident in these systems. There's only a tiny, vocal minority making false claims to the contrary.'"

Newsday also covered Wednesday's hearing.

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