Archive for Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Voting machine concerns persist

Douglas County official prefers paper trail over new touchscreens

June 1, 2004


— After the hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election, many states got rid of their punch-card ballot systems in favor of touchscreen computer voting machines.

But now, across the country, some states and counties are rebelling against those high-tech machines after reported breakdowns that leave behind no paper record of votes that can be checked.

Douglas County Clerk Patty Jaimes, the chief election official in the county for the past 23 years, counts herself among those skeptical of electronic voting.

"I like the paper trail," Jaimes said.

She said when votes were tallied electronically with no paper backup, election outcomes could be wrong because of computer failure or computer hacking.

Ballot jitters

The anxiety of unverifiable votes has heightened as the November presidential contest approaches and polls show another nearly dead-even race.

Nationwide, three out of 10 voters will vote on touchscreens; a recipe for electoral disaster, according to Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that monitors election processes.

"There are two risks with electronic voting -- deliberate manipulation and accidental problems," Alexander said. "All of our voting systems, when it comes to security, are extremely porous."

The verifiable voting movement is gaining momentum. Ohio has adopted a law that requires counties to have paper trails with their touchscreen machines by November 2006, and California officials -- prompted by numerous touchscreen malfunctions in the March presidential primary -- is requiring voter-verification systems on machines purchased after November. Numerous other states and Congress are considering proposals requiring paper backups.

But Kansas' chief election official, Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, said many of the concerns of those opposed to electronic voting were off-base because they had not taken into account security systems and safety redundancies built into the election system.

"There are a bunch of folks who are uninformed and leaping to illogical conclusions," Thornburgh said.

Kansas overhaul

In Kansas, three counties use touchscreen voting; 81 counties, including Douglas County, use a paper ballot that is fed into an optical scanner; 21 counties use paper ballots; and one county employs a combination of touchscreen and optical scanner.

But Kansas, as in many states, is on the verge of overhauling its election system, which will greatly increase the use of touchscreen voting.

Under the federal Help America Vote Act, touchscreen machines must be in each polling place by 2006 to accommodate voters with disabilities. In Kansas, that means buying about 2,500 voting machines at more than $10 million.

"What is not settled is whether or not the voter-verified paper trail is going to be required in the machines," said Michael Donnelly, director of policy and research for the Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services, a federally funded watchdog group for the disabled.

State Rep. R.J. Wilson of Pittsburg, the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics and Elections Committee, said, "Whatever kind of system we have should have a verifiable element that lets you know how your vote was cast and allows you to verify that back to the machine."

Voting security

But Thornburgh said those wanting a paper receipt for each vote were raising doubts "by looking at a very small piece of the totality of an election system."

He said in Kansas touchscreen computers could not be hacked because they were not hooked up to the Internet nor were results transmitted over a telephone line.

"In Kansas, the only thing those machines are attached to is a 110-volt wall socket, and I have yet to find anyone who could hack into that," he said.

Thornburgh said he was not necessarily opposed to a paper trail but didn't want it mandated under legislation pending in Congress.

In the next several months, Thornburgh said he would convene a task force of election officials and computer experts to provide a recommendation on what kind of electronic system should be purchased.

Despite Thornburgh's confidence in electronic voting, Alexander says there are many security soft spots, including election employees and employees of voting machine vendors.

"Generally there is not someone who is sophisticated enough who can monitor what vendors do on this equipment," she said. She added that federal standards for electronic voting machines were extremely weak.

Johnson County experience

But officials in Johnson County -- the state's largest county in population -- say the touchscreens have worked well.

Johnson County Election Commissioner Connie Schmidt said requiring a paper backup would be an administrative nightmare and probably would cause malfunctions, cause long voting lines and result in some people not voting.

Schmidt said she was confident in the integrity of Johnson County's election system.

"We have a tremendous amount of security measures in place," she said.

She said problems that had occurred in other areas of the country probably were due to the fact that election officials didn't certify and test machines thoroughly before the election.

Much of the anxiety over electronic voting can be attributed to fear about new technology, she said.

"It's a transitional issue," Schmidt said. Going to touchscreen voting "is a huge change in the democratic process, and the concept of not having a paper ballot is stressful."

She said it would require time for voters to trust the new machines, just as it took time for students to go from writing math problems on paper, and then doing them on adding machines with a paper backup to now using calculators with no paper trail.

To Alexander, technology is the problem. She said the machines were not fail-safe, and in the meantime, low-tech paper ballots could adequately ensure a correct election result.

"We're trying to jam a fuel cell into a Model T," she said.

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