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Electronic voting stirs debate

By Jack Douglas Jr.

Dallas Ft. Worth Star-Telegram Staff Writer  10 October 2004

Their makers say they are tamper-proof, waterproof, built to last and trustworthy.

The state government has even gone so far as to lock the secrets of what makes them tick in an Austin vault.

But critics of the new computerized voting machines seen by some as the solution to the ballot-counting debacle in the 2000 presidential election say they are far from invulnerable.

Computer breakdowns, the loss of memory cards or unscrupulous hackers posing as repairmen could leave election officials empty-handed, unable to rely on paper ballots in the event of a recount, critics contend.

"The bad guys will always figure out how your system works," said Dan Wallach, an assistant professor of computer science at Rice University.

In Tarrant County, computer screens will be used for early voting, but more-time-tested optical-scan machines will read paper ballots cast on Election Day.

Both systems are "very, very accurate," county Elections Administrator Robert Parten said.

Like many other election supervisors across the country, Parten does not believe a paper trail is needed to protect returns.

It's "absolutely a waste of time and money, and it's totally uncalled for," he said, noting that the county has used electronic voting without a paper backup for the past four years with no major problems reported.

But Art Brender, chairman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said he is worried that a simple programming error, or the types of crashes experienced by computer users every day, could jeopardize "hundreds of thousands" of votes.

A backup paper ballot is needed, Brender said, to prevent a "superdisaster" on Election Day.

Pat Carlson, head of the county's Republican Party, said Brender's "paranoia" is typical of Democrats who are still unhappy that George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000.

Carlson said she prefers using computers for early voting, which runs Oct. 18-29, because of the money saved by not printing paper ballots.

Still, like Brender, she said she is comforted by the use of the "broken-arrow" paper ballots on Nov. 2 because "we need to keep as much of a paper trail as we can."

Despite exhaustive safeguards, concerns about the reliability and security of electronic voting machines continue to stir controversy.

Wallach contends that if there had been no paper trail in 2000, Bush and Gore could still be arguing over who should move into the White House.

With contested election returns, he said, paper is needed to "provide enough evidence to convince the loser that he lost."

Parten says critics are overreacting.

"To me, saying you have to have all of this paper trail is just a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "Two years from now, nobody will care whether we have a paper trail or not."

Wallach countered that election organizers are standing by their new machines because they have invested so much money in them. He also suggested that the companies that make the machines are "wining and dining" the government officials who buy them.

Parten rejected such suggestions. "That's a bunch of bunk," he said.

Parten said he is buying the machines for the county because the government is telling him to. State and federal laws have set deadlines for the technology to be in place so that voters with disabilities, including those who are blind or partially paralyzed, can cast ballots without assistance.

Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on vote-counting computers throughout the country. Tarrant County invested $870,000 for the 370 eSlate computers that will be used this year.

Parten expects to spend an additional $2.5 million for more electronic voting machines to satisfy a federal law that requires all polling sites to have handicapped-accessible systems by 2006. And while election officials in Tarrant and Dallas counties continue to offer voters a choice between computer and paper, all of the voting booths have been computerized in Harris, Bexar and Travis counties.

"Based on all of our experiences, I couldn't be more pleased with the eSlate system," said David Beirne, spokesman for the Harris County Clerk's Office in Houston, which oversees the state's largest elections system.

Harris County has spent $25 million for electronic voting machines, Bexar County has spent more than $8 million and Travis County has spent $5.1 million.

In Dallas County, election officials have put their money behind iVotronic touch-screen machines that will be used in early voting.

"It's a very efficient way to conduct early voting," Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet said.

Susybelle Gosslee, president of the League of Women Voters of Dallas, is not so sure.

The machines, Gosslee told Dallas County commissioners in August, need "more-secure, tamper-proof programs" before Dallas voters will feel "confident that their voices are heard."

Such concerns are not shared by Marjorie Montgomery, president of the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County.

"I think they are safe," she said.

Montgomery also noted that voters in Tarrant County, as in Dallas County, have a choice.

"If you are really worried about electronic voting, then don't vote early," she said.

With the elections fast approaching, supporters of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry are already predicting trouble, including the possibility that the computer's motherboards might crash.

They have begun to raise money for a court fight, remembering the controversy over Florida in 2000, in which the infamous "butterfly ballot" confused voters and a vote dispute that went to the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily left the presidential winner in question.

"The goal is to ensure ballot integrity ... so we don't have another Florida," said lawyer Steve Maxwell, a sponsor of a recent event in Fort Worth where supporters worked to raise $50,000 to help Kerry organize a legal team if needed.

Kerry's campaign also sent out an e-mail last week asking for money for a possible legal battle.

"Be PREPARED," it said. "With the race so close in so many states, we need to be prepared for any possibility and that means being ready for any recounts."

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