Reality collides with e-voting

Technology will improve the voting process, but real life will continue to cause problems, state and local elections officials said this week.

Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002 to help local jurisdictions upgrade their existing election machines to electronic machines, such as devices with touch screens. The technology going into counties and towns nationwide is making it easier to meet the needs of disabled citizens and prevent situations in which a citizen mistakenly vote more than once or not at all on a particular section of a ballot, said Bob Terwilliger, auditor in Washington state's Snohomish County. His county has had electronic voting technology for more than a year now.

Terwilliger and others spoke April 27 at the midyear conference of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

Serving multilingual communities becomes easier with electronic voting systems, said David Orr, clerk for Cook County, Ill., the second-largest county in the country.

HAVA requires each state to have a single voter registration database to prevent county-to-county differences in who qualifies to vote and who has registered. The legislation is already having a large impact on states where that database must link into other statewide systems under development, such as the systems within the corrections and motor vehicle departments, said Brad King, co-director of the Indiana Election Division.

But officials are finding that the real problem is how to make the technology fit into a people-based process, Orr said.

"This isn't an environment where you've got well-trained, experienced engineers" using the technology, he said. In fact, in Cook County the average age of the polling station workers is above 70, he said.

Under HAVA, states have until 2006 to put the new e-voting process in place. That still may not be enough time to get in all of the necessary policy changes, training, and outreach to citizens, Terwilliger said.

Many states, however, are pushing to get e-voting in before the upcoming presidential election. The effort is highlighting the problems that real life can cause for a new process, Orr said.

"You can't rush into this stuff," he said.

For example, recent problems with the California primary in San Diego County were primarily caused by incomplete training. When the new machines presented a screen that poll workers had never seen before on the day of the primary, the workers wasted at least 30 minutes to call technical support to figure out what was going on, Orr said.

California officials have been debating what to do about the problems they experienced, including a suggestion to get rid of the new machines from Diebold Election Systems, which are among the most widely used machines worldwide. Yesterday, a panel of top state elections officials recommended not banning the machines, but they recommended that paper ballots should be available as backups.

Paper is at the center of the many questions about verifying votes. Several bills in Congress address this concern, and the San Diego problems sparked interest in these bills. But Congress is still sluggish on the issue, and the federal commission examining the issue will not have its first meeting until May, Terwilliger said.

In the meantime, local officials are faced with widely varying state and county requirements in the audit trail area that could force them to create what will essentially be a redundant paper process for the new electronic process, he said.

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