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 2002.
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 VerifiedVoting.org, 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
Opponents of the paper record