GAO investigation of e-voting problems requested

Half-a-dozen Democratic congressmen have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate reports of voting irregularities in the Nov. 2 election, many of them involving electronic touch-screen voting machines.

A Nov. 5 letter to comptroller general David M. Walker cited news reports of problems in California, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio in which thousands of votes were erroneously recorded, deleted or added.

“We are literally receiving additional reports every minute,” the representatives said in the letter.

The request was followed up with a second letter Nov. 8 referencing additional complaints reported on public Web sites and received in congressional offices.

New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler placed a form on his Web site Wednesday to let individuals submit complaints and comments on the election. Nadler, one of the signers of the letters, is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution.

Nadler’s Washington office director John Doty said Judiciary Democrats probably would call for hearings early next year on voting rights, technology and standards. Scheduling hearings would be up to the Republican majority.

The investigation is not a challenge of the election, Doty said.

“At this point it does not look like there are going to be so many votes it would overturn the election,” he said. “But if there are problems, we want to correct them.”

The issue of electronic voting has become a hot topic as states begin investing in new voting machines, many of them using computer technology that records votes electronically.

A number of computer scientists and voting rights activists have questioned the security and reliability of machines that record votes electronically with no paper ballots. The computer-based machines are subject to errors in code and security breaches, and no meaningful recount is possible without a separate ballot, they said.

“Paperless electronic-voting systems are completely unacceptable,” Dan Wallach, assistant professor of computer science at Rice University said earlier this week at a computer security conference in Washington.

State and local governments conduct elections. The federal government historically has not set rules for the nuts and bolts of casting and counting votes. The Help America Vote Act, passed in the wake of the disputed presidential election of 2000, is the federal government’s first foray into that area. But HAVA’s key requirements do not kick in until 2006, when voting systems used in federal elections will have to provide for error correction by voters, manual auditing, accessibility, alternative languages and compliance with federal error-rate standards.

Work on standards has just begun. The National Institute of Standards and Technology chairs a committee producing voluntary guidelines for developing electronic voting software for the Election Assistance Commission.

Nevada this year was the first state to require electronic voting machines to produce a paper ballot for recounts. But 31 percent of those questioned in an election-day survey in Las Vegas did not even know their machines were producing a paper ballot. Only 59 percent examined the ballot to confirm their choices before casting their votes.

A bill introduced by Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, who signed the letters requesting a GAO study, would require voting machines to produce paper ballots or other auditable records for manual recounts. That bill, HR 2239 [] has not been acted on since being referred to the House Committee on House Administration in May 2003.

Other Democrats joining the request to GAO are John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, Robert C. Scott of Virginia, Melvin Watt of North Carolina and Robert Wexler of Florida.

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