Electronic voting still a live issue
By Don Schanche Jr.
Telegraph Staff Writer
When Georgia voters cast their touch-screen, electronic ballots in Tuesday's primary elections, they will be at the center of a nationwide debate.
The question: Where's the paper?
State elections officials are convinced that Georgia's two-year old, multimillion dollar investment in a statewide electronic voting system has paid off big-time, with improved accuracy and accessibility.
"I anticipate the equipment is going to work beautifully," said Kathy Rogers, director of elections administration for the Secretary of State.
But critics, like those who held "Computer Ate My Vote" demonstrations last week in 19 states, say electronic votes cannot stand alone without some kind of voter-verified paper receipt.
"In states with electronic voting machines such as Georgia, we have a situation where there is no paper record along with the voting machine. It means the voters cannot verify that their votes are (cast) as they intended," said Will Doherty, executive director of a watchdog group called Verifiedvoting.org. "Secondly, election officials cannot conduct meaningful recounts or audits of the election."
Georgia ventured into digital voting after the 2000 election debacle, when the infamous "hanging chads" on Florida's punch-card ballots threw the presidential election into doubt.
Upon learning that Georgia's under-count due to spoiled ballots was even worse than Florida's, Secretary of State Cathy Cox launched a reform. The result: a $54 million investment - since repaid by the federal government - in a statewide electronic voting system from Diebold Election Systems.
In 2002, Georgia became the first state to use such a system. With 23,437 Accuvote TS terminals now in service, Georgia is Diebold Election System's largest U.S. client.
According to Cox's office, the under count ped from 3.5 percent in 2000 to less than 1 percent in 2002.
Voters apparently were pleased.
A survey released in 2003 by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia showed 70 percent of Georgians were "very confident" their votes had been counted in 2002 - up from 56 percent in 2001. Another survey released this year showed 84 percent of Georgians believe the touch screen system is an improvement over paper ballots.
"We've run hundreds of elections in Georgia since 2002 and we've had no reported instances of fraud on electronic machines," Rogers said.
But electronic voting - now a part of elections in nearly 40 states - has come under fire. Several studies in Maryland, which uses the same Diebold machines as Georgia, suggested that the machines could be "hacked," and election results compromised by someone with enough computer expertise.
Elections officials in Maryland and Georgia said they responded by tightening up security and improving the computer software.
When the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in 2003 that Diebold Inc. chairman Walden O'Dell said he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes" to President Bush, a storm of conspiracy theories about Diebold equipment exploded on the Internet.
Rogers said O'Dell's comments "didn't help at all. Secretary Cox has publicly voiced her displeasure at that."
O'Dell has since apologized, and Diebold has forbidden its elections executives to engage in political activity.
Rogers says much of the criticism of electronic voting comes from "a whole lot of people who haven't fully studied voting É What happens at the polling place not just what happens in the laboratory environment."
Officials say none of Georgia's electronic voting units is hooked to a network where hackers could reach it. They say anyone attempting to mess with a machine during polling hours would be quickly spotted. And they point out that voters never needed receipts before, not with lever machines, optical scanners or punch-cards.
The people who run Georgia elections say they remain confident in the Diebold machines.
"I love 'em," said Elaine Carr, elections supervisor for the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections.
"To me this is the most accurate system that we've ever had. I really don't understand the public questioning these systems so much."
Doherty, whose nonpartisan group calls for "transparent, reliable, and publicly verifiable elections," said the problem is that the system leaves voters and officials without tangible evidence.
He would prefer an optical scan system, where voters mark paper ballots that are read by a computer and stored in case of a recount. Failing that, he said, electronic voting machines should be outfitted with printers.
Some states, including California and Nevada, have begun requiring a paper receipt for electronic voting.
But elections officials say ing printers into the process creates a nightmare.
"What if one piece of paper jams?" Rogers asked.
Anyone who has stood in a supermarket checkout line when the clerk's digital equipment goes haywire knows the answer.
Then there are procedural questions: What do you do with the paper receipt? Let the voter keep it? Store it in a ballot box? Which is the official record, the digital vote or the paper record?
And there is this one, posed by Ray Cobb, who runs the Kennesaw State University Center for Elections, where each of Georgia's voting machines is tested: "If you don't trust the computer to record it right, how do you trust the computer to print it out?"
Federal elections officials have not answered those questions, nor even set standards for electronic voting printers.
Rogers said paper receipts and ballots re-introduce opportunities for fraud.
"There's not one case of election fraud (in Georgia) which has been associated with the hacking or tampering with computers," Rogers said.
"But there have been untold cases associated with paper."
Doug Chapin is director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that provides news and analysis on election reform.
"I think right now the issue is very much unresolved," he said. "As you can see by the rallies in 19 states a couple of days ago, there's a growing interest in paper trails or some other type of verifiable means for voters to be sure the vote they put in the front of the machine actually comes out of the back."
He said there's a difference between "threat" and "risk" in the problems that researchers have uncovered in electronic voting software and procedures.
"It's like the threat that birds might fly into all four engines of a plane in flight. But the risk of that happening is infinitesimal," he said.
"While the academics have done a good job of identifying threats, I think the thing elections officials are trying to do is to quantify risk in a way that elections officials and vendors and voters can understand."
Chapin said it looks like the debate over electronic voting is tipping toward the side that wants some way to verify votes.
"No matter how you resolve the implementation problem of verification, I think it's undeniable that security and verification is an issue that everyone has to address," he said.
"I would agree that however the issue is resolved, it is both reasonable and appropriate that states be thinking about it and working to solve the problem."