Critics warn of post-election problems if no paper trail exists

From: Arthur Keller <arthur_at_kellers_dot_org>
Date: Sat Sep 11 2004 - 08:17:21 CDT

Touch-screen voting

Critics warn of post-election problems if no paper trail exists

BY Michael Hardy
  Published on Sept. 6, 2004

----start of sidebar----
Nevada votes for paper trail

Nevada officials will provide voters with touch-screen voting
machines from Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. in a primary in September
and in the general election in November. Sequoia machines equipped
with a printer attachment will be available statewide - except in
Clark County and its county seat, Las Vegas. Officials there will
provide older Sequoia machines that will not have the printer
attachment. But election officials will make at least one of the
newer printer-equipped machines available at each polling place.

- Michael Hardy
----end of sidebar----

  In many ways, politics in the United States are unlike those in
Venezuela. The South American nation last month held a recall
election for President Hugo Chavez, who survived an attempted coup in

But in another sense, that election may foreshadow the upcoming
election in this country. The Venezuelan vote was conducted using
electronic voting machines that generate a voter-verified paper
trail. Chavez's opposition claimed that the victory, in which 59
percent voted to keep Chavez in power, was rigged. But international
election monitors were able to conduct an audit by comparing the
paper record to the electronic vote tallies.

"Without a paper trail to audit, there would have been no way to
reach any closure on this situation," said one American observer on
the scene in Caracas, Venezuela's capital. "There would be no paper
trail, and you would be left with the assertion that some kind of
manipulation happened. You have a safe bet that something like that
is going to happen in November" in the United States.

The Venezuelan referendum is just one more chapter in the controversy
over direct recording electronic (DRE) machines, most of which use a
touch screen to record votes. A U.S. company, Smartmatic Corp., made
the machines used in Venezuela. Each machine has a built-in printer
to create a paper record. Another U.S. company, AccuPoll Inc., also
makes DREs with built-in printers. Other vendors, mostly basing their
products on older technologies, are trying to add printers to some
models, with mixed results.

  Nearly 30 percent of American voters will use touch-screen machines
in November, almost none of which will generate a paper record.
Defenders say the machines provide electronic means to recount
contested votes. But skeptics continue to call for the addition of a
voter-verified paper record that could be stored securely and used as
an additional check.

The Carter Center and the Organization of American States oversaw the
Venezuelan election and conducted the audit, which found no
discrepancies between the electronic votes and the paper records.

But the audit did not end the controversy, because the opposition
party refused to take part, said David Dill, a computer science
professor at Stanford University and a leader in,
a group that advocates paper trails.

Recounts and audits need to be observed by all sides in a contested
outcome, Dill said. The refusal of Chavez's opponents to participate
"reduces the degree of certainty we can have about the results," he
said. "It also reduces the legitimacy of any complaints."

Smartmatic's machines performed as intended, said company spokesman
Mitch Stoller. In addition to creating a paper record, the system can
perform multiple electronic backups of the data, so there are several
ways to cross-check results.

  "It's very, very simple," Stoller said. "It is an extremely
auditable and transparent system. It can be checked in seven
different ways."

DREs do include some internal electronic cross-checks, by recording
voting data in more than one memory system, for example. Dill said
such techniques are not as useful as a voter- verified record but do
have some utility.

"It's the sort of thing that can show problems but can't show
nonproblems," he said. Some irregularities could escape detection by
the electronic methods.

The debate about touch-screen voting has been brewing since at least
last year, when Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) introduced a bill that would
amend the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which required the
paper records. The bill remains in committee.

Opponents of the paper record - including industry trade groups,
disability advocates and many local elections officials - say that no
standard exists to ensure that various precincts are recording the
data in a consistent manner. They also worry about mechanical
failures, paper jams, and the additional training and work required
to implement printing systems.

DREs offer significantly better ballot access for voters with
disabilities and for non-English speakers, which a required paper
trail would undermine, according to the four bipartisan authors of
HAVA, in a letter they sent to colleagues in April to oppose Holt's

But many computer scientists and activists are worried about the
prospects of deliberate fraud and computer error that could affect
election outcomes.

Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. officials have developed a paper trail
capability for their machines, and the state of Nevada will use the
systems this year, said company spokesman Alfie Charles. However, he
said that no amount of safeguards would ever satisfy all voters.

Americans would not complain in an election that was decided by as
wide a margin as in Venezuela's, he said. "That's a cultural
difference in the fundamental trust of government," he said. But when
the results are close, he added, "it doesn't matter if the election
was conducted properly or not, somebody will cry foul."

Charles Greenwald, a spokesman for the Information Technology
Association of America, said that the paper trail should be
considered only one of several protections against machine error and
fraud. ITAA officials have generally opposed efforts to require a
paper audit capability for the November 2004 elections.

"Any election requires a set of formal processes and well-trained
people," Greenwald said. "Election machines must be vetted as part of
such a thorough process, as they are at numerous levels within the
U.S. system of elections."

  But according to Aviel Rubin, a Johns Hopkins University computer
science professor, any safeguard that does not let voters confirm
that the recorded results reflect their choices is not sufficient.

"If the recall vote [in Venezuela] had been close, they could have
done a manual recount, and they still can," he said. "In November, if
our presidential election is close, and if there is any controversy,
we will not be able to perform a recount of about 30 percent of the

Use of DREs for a simple yes or no vote was probably unwarranted,
Rubin added. "Given the complexity of our ballots relative to those
in the recall vote in Venezuela, electronic voting makes more sense"
in the United States, he said. "But without voter-verifiable paper,
we will be much worse off than they were if the election is close and

Any post-election dispute is unlikely to turn into "an unmitigated
disaster," said computer scientist Rebecca Mercuri, a Radcliffe
Institute Fellow at Harvard University.

"What worries me is that there will be problems - and the problems
will be very subtle - that may not get noticed," she said.

  To an extent, the value of paper records lies in voter perception,
said Mark Gray, a research associate at Georgetown University.

  "The perception that something could occur is probably more
important than the reality," he said. "When the only records are
digital, it's easier to make accusations of fraud."

If the outcome of the November election is close in some states, and
current polling suggests it will be, states that used paperless DREs
will have fewer means to recount the results, Dill said. They could
consider exit polling and the electronic backup systems that the
machines do provide.

Some California senators are working on legislation to move up a
deadline for requiring that voting machines produce a paper audit
trail. The lawmakers want the requirement to become effective January
2006 instead of November 2006, the date set by California Secretary
of State Kevin Shelley. That would put the new systems in place
before the state's 2006 primary elections.

Shelley has taken a tough stand on touch-screen voting machines by
decertifying one model from Diebold Inc. and imposing strict security
rules on election districts that plan to use touch-screen machines.

  In the November elections, 11 California counties will use
touch-screen machines from various vendors, said Darren Chesin,
consultant to the California Senate's Elections and Reapportionment
Committee. "The paper trails provide the voters themselves with the
confidence that the machine is accurately recording their choices,"
Chesin said. "Otherwise, you've got to trust the machines."

Arthur M. Keller, Ph.D., 3881 Corina Way, Palo Alto, CA  94303-4507
tel +1(650)424-0202, fax +1(650)424-0424
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Received on Thu Sep 30 23:17:05 2004

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