Lawmakers Pushing for Paper Trail As Backup

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

A computer glitch that alters the names of some candidates on electronic ballots in three Virginia cities helps prove the need to create a paper record of each vote cast, two state lawmakers said yesterday.

Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) and Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax) said at a news conference in Fairfax County that the computer errors in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville show that legislation is necessary to ensure the accuracy of electronic voting throughout Virginia.

Alexandria officials said earlier this week that a change to a larger type size on the summary page of the electronic ballot distorts candidates' names. U.S. Senate candidate James Webb (D), for example, appears as "James H. 'Jim' " on the summary page.

Officials stressed that the page on which voters actually make their selections contains the full names; the summary page shows voters all their selections before they cast their ballot. State election officials say the glitch will not affect the outcome of races and have pledged to correct the problem by the 2007 statewide elections.

"Those events erode voter confidence," Devolites Davis said. "Accuracy and confidence in that accuracy is of the utmost importance to both the voters and candidates."

Lawmakers introduced a bill in the last General Assembly session that would require the Virginia State Board of Elections to design a pilot program to test electronic voting equipment and paper records. The bill was not approved. With the Nov. 7 election less than two weeks away, Hugo and Devolites Davis are renewing their call for paper records.

A paper record "gives voters an opportunity to double-check their votes and make sure they have been recorded as intended," Devolites Davis said.

Hugo said the need for safeguards has never been more obvious, citing recent troubles during Maryland's primary election that prompted Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to suggest the state revert to a paper ballot system for the Nov. 7 election.

"You get a [paper] receipt at the ATM and Safeway," said Hugo, who along with Devolites Davis led a two-year study of Virginia's voting system. "That way there's a backup if you need it."

Virginia localities have largely turned to touch-screen machines that don't generate a paper record of individual votes. But there are technologies available that do. One is a box, similar to a printer, that can be attached to the touch-screen machines. The boxes display printed paper slips that show voters how their choices will be recorded. The records are stored within the machines and then, depending on the state, filed by election officials.

A few jurisdictions, including Loudoun and Stafford counties, use a hybrid system in which voters fill out paper ballots, indicating their choices by marking bubbles resembling those on the SAT, and then insert them into optical scanning machines. If necessary, the paper ballots can be used to verify the machine results.

Devolites Davis said that confidence in the voting system comes with a cost. Although the numbers are still be tabulated, she said, buying printers or switching to optical scanning equipment could be expensive. Devolites Davis said she would like Congress to give the states money to make the changes. If Congress won't, it will be up to the states, she said.

"About 95 percent of the computer scientists out there . . . believe that [electronic] voting machines are not trustworthy as they are built," said Jeremy Epstein, a computer security architect who was on the legislative subcommittee that studied Virginia's voting system. "It's important to recognize they aren't foolproof. Adding paper is a way to solve the problem."

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