E-voting debate: paper or no paper

As the administrator of elections for Maryland, Linda Lamone believes electronic voting machines are safe and secure, even without a paper trail.

“Most folks do not understand the tremendous amount of testing and security procedures that we do in Maryland,” Lamone said. “We have used electronic voting equipment for 30 elections, and we haven’t had a single problem with the equipment. People don’t like change, and when we switched from paper ballots to lever machines or from lever machines to punch card machines, we went through the same hysteria.”

David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford University and founder of VerifiedVoting.org, said direct-recording electronic voting machines are not reliable enough.

“In 50 years of computer science, we haven’t figured out how to deal with software bugs,” Dill said. “Electronic voting is reasonable as long as there is a paper trail.”

Lamone and Dill are on opposite sides of the e-voting debate about whether electronic machines should have paper verification of votes cast. And with less than six months before November’s general election, Congress and many state legislatures are debating the issue.

Election Data Services Inc., a Washington consulting firm focusing on election administration and analysis of political data, said 21 percent of the 3,114 counties in the United States will use e-voting machines, and 45 percent will use optical-scan technology, this fall.

Optical-scan machines require voters to fill out ballots by hand and then run them through the reader that tallies the votes.

With direct-reporting electronic machines, voters typically enter their choices on a touch screen. Votes are recorded on a memory card, so there is no paper trail.

Congress provided states with funds to update their voting machines through the Help America Vote Act to avoid the kind of election problems Florida had in 2000. States such as California, Maryland and Maine took advantage of the $3.9 billion lawmakers have handed out for new voting equipment.

But as these states turn to electronic machines, academics and other experts have called for a process to verify the votes.

Opposition mounts

“We are expecting the impossible from these machines,” said Dill, who supports the use of optical-scan machines because it provides both a paper trail and an electronic tally of the votes. “A voter-verifiable audit trail is an independent way of checking what the machines are doing.”

Dill and other paper trail advocates are gaining support from state legislatures and members of Congress.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) last year introduced federal legislation that would require all voting machines to produce a paper record by 2004. The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003 has been referred to the House Committee on House Administration. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) introduced a companion bill in the Senate, which also is stuck in committee.

California’s secretary of state last month decertified all touch-screen voting machines until they could produce a voter-verified paper trail.

And Maine’s legislature recently passed a bill requiring electronic voting machines to provide voters with a paper receipt of their ballot.

“There is a wave of common sense that is crossing the country,” Dill said. “I would not rule out e-voting at some future point, but no one has convinced me that they can do it safely.”

While Dill and others doubt the security of e-voting machines, Maryland’s Lamone and other e-voting advocates say the technology works, and the potential for problems derives more from human error. Other voting methods are far less reliable, they say.

For example, 33 out of 16,000 voters in a recent Orange County, Calif., election received the wrong electronic ballot. “In every election where punch card machines are used, you lose at least that many votes,” said Daniel Tokaji, an assistant professor at Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio, at a recent e-voting discussion hosted by the IT Association of America in Washington.


Lamone said Maryland takes several steps to make sure the e-voting machines work and are tamper-proof. Twenty-three of 24 Maryland counties use the AccuVote TS voting system from Diebold Inc. of North Canton, Ohio. The other county will upgrade from optical-scan machines in 2006, she said.

Additionally, the state does not buy the voting machine software from Diebold, but from a third party that has tested it and verified that it works.

Maryland then conducts a mock election, and hires a vendor to verify that the machines and software work.

Before actual polling, the machines are secured with tamper tape to protect against break-ins. And after the election, county officials transmit encrypted voting data via modem.

Maryland officials also require county officials to reread the machines’ memory cards to verify the results, and then perform an audit on at least 10 percent of them.

“We have done everything to ensure the integrity of the process,” Lamone said. “A paper trail does not provide anything that we haven’t done already.”

Dill, however, said there are too many other holes that Maryland does not take into account. He said the software that runs the machines already could be infected with malicious code that would be trigged by date, time, number of votes or pattern of votes.

“Malicious tampering could happen anywhere from making software to the machines, and the independent testers and mock elections may not find it,” he said. “Anywhere where computers are protecting information, inside tampering has occurred. But because voting is an anonymous transaction, it is more important to have a paper trail.”

PostNewsweek Tech staff writer Gail Repsher Emery contributed to this story.

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