Group calls for e-voting backups

Group led by Carter, Baker asked to improve U.S. voting process

Commission on Federal Election Reform report

Nearly five years after the 2000 elections spurred calls for voting reform, electronic voting continues to stir controversy. A new report recommending paper audit trails, photo identification requirements and new electronic registration systems fuels the fire.

The Commission on Federal Election Reform, led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, issued a 104-page report, with 87 specific recommendations, earlier this month.

Some of the recommendations, including that all e-voting machines produce a voter-verified paper record, have been well-received by election reform activists. Others, such as requiring all voters to present a photo ID card to verify their identities, have raised worries that poor voters could be disenfranchised because many do not have driver's licenses.

Only two of the 87 recommendations concern voting machines. The commission recommended that Congress pass a law mandating that all voting machines produce a voter-verifiable paper trail.

Critics of e-voting machines have long argued that without such a record, voters must trust the machines to accurately tally the results. A paper record, they say, would let voters verify the accuracy of their votes. It also could be used in a recount as a check against possible machine errors or fraud.

Such records would also serve as a means to check the machines' accuracy before an election and would increase voter confidence, according to the report.

However, because states and counties administer elections, the use of such paper trails has been inconsistent so far, said Linda Schade, director of TrueVoteMd, a Maryland activist group.

As of August, 25 states had laws that mandate paper records for electronic machines, and 14 others had proposed legislation, according to the report. Schade said 49 states now have laws, proposed laws or support from elections supervisors for laws.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who has legislation pending to impose a nationwide paper record program, said he was grateful for the commission's support. "I hope Congress will now move swiftly to embrace my legislation in time for the 2006 elections," he said.

Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University and a longtime proponent of paper records, disagreed with the commission's suggestion that individual states should determine whether the paper record or the electronic tally should be the official ballot. "I think that should be federally mandated," he said. "Right now, it is not clear if there is a discrepancy with the [paper] recount and the electronic count. This needs to be specified somewhere uniformly."

Not all voter groups praised the report. The League of Women Voters, which has taken the position that paper records do not solve the security and accuracy issues that they are said to help, called the report "a grab bag of recycled proposals."

American University's Center for Democracy and Election Management created the commission, and Robert Pastor, the center's director, served as the commission's executive director. The center's work was sponsored by several foundations, including Carnegie, the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Omidyar Network.

Improving the vote

The Commission on Federal Election Reform made 87 recommendations in a report released earlier this month.

They include:

  • Voter databases should be interoperable among states so that information on voters who have moved to another state can be easily shared to prevent duplicate registrations.
  • States should use procedures such as electronic matching of death records, local tax rolls and felon records to help maintain accurate lists of registered voters.
  • Congress should pass a law requiring that all voting machines have a voter-verified paper audit trail and be fully accessible to people with disabilities.
  • States should adopt unambiguous procedures to reconcile discrepancies between paper and electronic tallies.
  • Independent testing authorities, under the Election Assistance Commission's supervision, should be responsible for certifying the security of source code used in e-voting machines. Copies of source code should be placed in escrow for qualified experts' future review. Manufacturers unwilling to submit their code should be barred from selling their machines.

-- Michael Hardy

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