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Editorial: Paper receipts won't cure ills of electronic voting

This week, moveon.org is organizing rallies in 19 states, including Wisconsin, to protest electronic voting. As part of its "computer ate my vote" campaign, moveon.org is promoting state and federal legislation that would require electronic ballot boxes to issue a paper receipt. The federal legislation has the backing of Wisconsin Reps. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) and Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac). 
 Skeptics are right to worry about computer voting. The systems are prone to software bugs, frauds and hackers. However, moveon.org is pursuing the wrong solution because paper receipts could create a false sense of security that computer voting is honest and accurate. The problem isn't the lack of a paper trail; it's lack of transparency.

Manufacturers of computer voting machines claim their counting software as proprietary information, which means that the public can't verify how the software is programmed and monitored. Imagine for example, if the Town of Byron hired a private vendor to count paper ballots in a locked room and then destroyed the ballots before the public could examine them. That's exactly what computer voting does, and it will happen this fall on a massive scale. Between eight to 10 percent of all ballots nationwide will be conducted by computer vote, and the percentage is much higher in battleground states like Ohio and Florida.

The paper receipt doesn't help. A hacker determined to alter an election outcome can easily devise a system in which the receipts and vote totals don't match. Unless there are two copies one for the voter and one for the city or county clerk there is no way to compare paper receipts against the announced outcome. It's a stretch to believe that enough voters will keep their receipts to produce a legitimate recount.

There's only one genuine solution to computer voting: allow experts representing both political parties to examine the software and verify its accuracy. Yes, that means that manufacturers would lose their software secrets, but that's a price manufacturers must be willing to pay. It's one thing to privatize concessions at a national park; it's quite another to privatize the counting of ballots. It's outrageous that America is preparing for an election in which millions of votes will be counted in secret. It's a problem that won't be solved by paper receipts.

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