E-voting group meets

The debate over electronic voting systems is heating up as the presidential election draws closer, and there are threads of debate even within the various groups that have an interest in the topic.

A standing-room-only crowd packed a hearing room in downtown Washington, D.C., today as the new Election Assistance Commission, appointed last year by President Bush, held a public hearing to discuss the risks and advantages of e-voting. It was the group's first public hearing.

Panels of computer scientists, vendor representatives, election officials and advocates for the handicapped testified, demonstrating a broad range of opinions.

The hearing came the week after California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley decertified all touch-screen voting systems in his state and urged the attorney general to file criminal charges against Diebold Election Systems Inc. for allegedly lying about the certification status of its equipment.

California counties that want to use the machines will have to implement a paper record system in time for the November election or adopt 23 other security measures for Shelley to recertify their machines, he said.

"I realize these steps have been controversial in some quarters," Shelley said during today's hearing. "Some local election officials do not believe the machines are vulnerable" to fraud or error.

"I do believe touch-screen machines can be reliable and secure, but the evidence to date suggests they are neither," he said.

Touch-screen voting machines, made by several companies, are widely acknowledged to solve some persistent problems that other voting systems have not, including access for the disabled and prevention of voter errors. The screen display can be set to high contrast, text magnified or doubled by an audio device to aid the visually impaired. The small machines can be made easily accessible to people in wheelchairs, or even detached and taken out to a disabled person in a car.

However, some computer scientists have insisted that the machines are vulnerable to fraud. An unscrupulous programmer working for one of the machine's vendors could add code that would convert some number of votes for a particular candidate into votes for the opposing candidate, said Dr. Aviel Rubin, a Johns Hopkins University professor. That's a scenario that the vendors and other supporters of the system paint as far-fetched.

The fiercest debate is over whether the touch-screen machines should be fitted with a printer that would generate a paper record of votes. Voters would each see their record, and then it would be stored at the polling place for use if a recount were needed. Proponents, including Shelley, say that such a record provides an added layer of security, while opponents say that the paper record would introduce more complexity and potential problems into the system.

Cathy McCormack, the county clerk and registrar for Los Angeles County, urged a slow path toward a paper record system, with pilot projects rather than all-out hurried installations.

She noted that similar concerns about the security and reliability of computerized voting were raised in the 1960s and 1970s, when IBM Corp. computers were first used to count votes.

"I think both sides of this raging debate are seeking the same goals," she said.

Denise Lamb, director of elections for New Mexico, also disagreed with paper trail proponents. "The most troublesome issues we've had in our state have been using paper ballots," she said. "In my opinion, too much attention has been placed on technology in this debate."

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