A group of Northern Virginia residents concerned about past problems with electronic voting machines urged a state panel last week to require localities to use devices that allow voters to see an automatically generated paper record of their selections.
Testifying at a packed public hearing at the state Capitol, the group told a legislative subcommittee studying new electronic voting equipment that such paper records are needed to boost confidence in the electoral process. Many people have said that confidence has eroded since the disputed 2000 presidential election and the 2003 Fairfax County elections, when some voting machines failed.
Such a system would "provide critical protections for voters," said Donald Wells, a member of Virginia Verified Voting, an Arlington group that advocates the use of a backup paper-ballot system. The group is urging Virginia officials to impose a moratorium on the purchase of paperless electronic voting machines.
"The visual verification of the paper audit trail by the voter . . . will rapidly detect malfunctioning voting machines so that they can be taken off-line," Wells said.
The subcommittee, chaired by Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), has been examining voting machine issues for about two years. The panel -- made up of state lawmakers, local-level election officials and residents -- is considering requiring a "voter-verified" paper audit trail for voting equipment. It is scheduled to make recommendations in November.
"What we're doing today is trying to make sure that all voters and all candidates continue to have supreme confidence in the system," Hugo said at the Aug. 22 hearing. He said the committee would solicit more recommendations from experts and residents.
Under the federal Help America Vote Act, Virginia has received about $30 million to replace outdated voting equipment such as punch-card machines, said Jean Jensen, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections. The older machines must be replaced by Jan. 1, and 87 of Virginia's 90 jurisdictions have updated their machines, Jensen said.
Virginia localities have turned to touch-screen machines that do not generate a paper record of vote tallies, Jensen said. But the technology allows for a box that is similar to a printer to be attached to the touch-screen machine. The boxes display paper slips resembling ATM receipts that show voters how their choices were recorded. The records are stored within the machines and then, depending on the state, filed by election officials.
Of the large Northern Virginia jurisdictions, Alexandria and Arlington, Prince William and Fairfax counties have bought the new electronic machines, which look like laptop computers. Voters in Loudoun County fill out paper ballots and insert them into optical scanner machines; if necessary, the retained ballots can be used to verify the machine totals.
Several speakers during last week's hearing referred to widespread problems with voting machines that delayed local election results in Fairfax County in 2003. At least 154 machines crashed or had power or printing problems; 10 machines broke down completely. In some cases voters said they believed their votes were not recorded, although election officials maintained that every vote was counted.
Such issues have flared across the country. In Maryland, a nonprofit group has fought unsuccessfully to persuade the state to implement voter-verified paper records that could be used in a manual recount. The Maryland Supreme Court has upheld a lower court's ruling that Maryland had adequately ensured "the security and secrecy of ballots" without a paper trail. About two dozen states have paper-trail procedures.
There have been legislative efforts in Virginia and at the federal level to require such immediate backup paper audits, but none have succeeded.
Jensen said the State Board of Elections must approve all the machines bought in Virginia. Jensen said she would use the findings from the subcommittee to help her determine whether to recommend the paper trail technology. She said she is generally skeptical that a paper audit system would address all the concerns raised during the hearing.
"People consistently blame the machines, but the problems that they often talk about are really human . . . error," she said. "I understand the concerns about electronic voting, but I haven't seen a [paper backup] system that adds to the efficiency of the voting process."
Still, speaker after speaker said last week that Virginia needs to invest in technology that allows for a paper backup for future electronic voting machines.
"Computer systems are fragile. Computer systems are hard to secure, therefore, we cannot rely solely on a computer system using only electronic storage to provide accurate election results," Aaron Temin of Reston told the panel. "A voter-verified permanent result is essential for valid elections, one that voters can trust the reported outcome."