Committee ponders e-voting

Election Assistance Commission

The controversy over electronic voting machines continues to foment as the November election approaches, and some state officials are putting the brakes on plans to adopt touch-screen machines.

Federal legislation that would require machines to produce a paper receipt that voters could see and verify has made little headway. On July 20, Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) chaired a hearing on such election technologies. State and federal officials, vendor officials and computer scientist Aviel Rubin testified.

Putnam is chairman of the Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee.

About 50 million voters, or 30 percent, are likely to use some type of electronic machine in the 2004 election, Putnam said. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 does not prescribe the type of technologies that election officials must use, but it does set requirements -- for example, that each polling place must have at least one handicapped-accessible voting machine -- that have nudged officials in the direction of electronic machines, he said.

"There is currently some controversy about how secure these systems are from tampering by voters, election personnel or even manufacturers," Putnam said. Experts disagree about whether the machines are secure enough to trust, he added.

Also called Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines, touch-screen machines were originally considered an antidote to problems with paper ballots, such as the confusion that tainted the presidential election of 2000. Advocates for people with disabilities support the machines, as do many election supervisors, but some computer scientists and activists are worried about the potential for errors or fraud.

In Missouri, Secretary of State Matt Blunt has decided not to certify any DRE machines that do not produce a paper trail, said Terry Jarrett, general counsel in Blunt's office.

"This will provide voters the peace of mind they deserve by enabling them to review their ballots prior to casting them and ensure that paper ballots are available for review, should a recount be necessary or an election result challenged," he said.

Blunt's action echoes those of officials in some other states. Last week, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell stopped the deployment of machines from Diebold Inc.'s Diebold Election Systems in that state, citing unresolved security issues. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley recently decertified touch-screen machines there, and set a list of conditions that local elections officials must meet in order to use them in November.

Moves such as that may be unwarranted, said Michael Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. The dangers that e-voting skeptics are "hypothetical," he said. "Fear of the machines is so prevalent that entire states are now insisting on the introduction of a technology that does not yet exist to solve a problem that has never been observed."

Despite the fact that he is not part of the subcommittee, Putnam invited Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who authored proposed legislation requiring such a paper record, to take part in the hearing.

Holt asked witnesses whether anyone other than the voter can verify that the vote as recorded reflects the voter's intent.

"I think that is the fundamental question here," he said.

Hratch Semerjian, acting director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, argued that even if the voter verifies the paper receipt, that "does not mean that the computer-recorded vote is verified."

NIST officials are working on voluntary standards and guidelines for election technologies, and also on a laboratory accreditation program through which testing labs for voting technologies can get a seal of approval. Neither will be ready until after the November election, however.

Rubin told the subcommittee that he has two "mutually exclusive" fears for November.

"The first concern is that something very bad will happen," he said. "My second concern is that nothing bad will happen, and that will be used as an argument that the machines are secure."

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