Nevada puts its money on paper trail
By CARLOS CAMPOS
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/10/04
LAS VEGAS — In a state that thrives on gambling, elections officials believe they've taken the risk out of electronic voting.
Nevada last month became the first state to employ electronic voting machines with printers that allow voters to confirm their computer ions against a paper receipt. And officials believe those paper trails — which Georgia activists have lobbied unsuccessfully for — are instilling new confidence in electronic voting.
Nevada defuses some criticism
Robert Chester, a Nevada lawyer and businessman, was skeptical of touch-screen voting until the state used the new machines with printers in the Sept. 7 primary elections. A random audit of 3 percent of the machines showed that the paper records matched 100 percent with the computers' tally.
"When those results confirmed that the computers were giving us accurate results, they gave us confidence that the system as a whole was working properly," Chester said.
In Georgia, Secretary of State Cathy Cox has steadfastly resisted outfitting the state's 24,550 touch-screen machines with printers. Staffers from her office visited Nevada and came away unconvinced.
"The technology is not there yet, the money is not there yet, and the standards are not there yet," Cox, the state's top elections official, said in an interview last week. "And we've got to have all of that come together before I'm ready to jump down that path."
But Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller believes he's marching boldly into the future of electronic voting.
"For the life of me, I cannot imagine a machine that guarantees the accuracy of electronic voting is going to be determined obsolete due to new standards," Heller said. "No one can prove — minus a paper trail — the accuracy and integrity of these machines."
Paper under plastic
Critics of touch-screen voting began calling for a "voter-verified paper audit trail" after a series of reports last year that questioned the security of electronic voting. Those critics — political activists, computer security experts, conspiracy theorists and others — say the machines can be manipulated to change the outcome of elections. Some argue that a paper record of an electronic ballot that voters could check for accuracy would ease such worries.
Nevada debuted its paper trail Sept. 7 after receiving $9.5 million in federal money to purchase about 2,000 new touch-screen voting machines with printers, Heller said. The machines, manufactured by Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems, are used exclusively in 16 of 17 Nevada counties.
Voters cast an electronic ballot on machines similar to Georgia's. But Nevada's machines have a small black box attached to them that contains a paper copy of the voter's ballot under a piece of clear plastic.
The voter reviews his ions to make sure they match the choices he made on the computer. If they do, he touches the screen to make the piece of paper disappear into the locked box. If the paper does not match — or the voter wants to make a change — he can cancel the paper ballot and vote again. If the paper trail is canceled, it prints "VOIDED." Voters cannot take the paper record with them.
Cox's office has several concerns about Nevada's system. Chief among them is the possibility that the anonymity of a vote could be compromised, since some voters walk away while the machine is still printing. It might also be possible to tell how someone voted in smaller precincts because the paper ballots scroll in successive order.
Nevada elections officials say those fears are exaggerated because there are measures in place to reduce those possibilities.
Alan Glover, who supervises elections in Carson City, was skeptical of changing from old punch-card machines to touch-screen voting. Glover now considers himself a convert. "They do go a long way with voter confidence," he said.
Mary Lee, president of the Nevada chapter of the League of Women Voters, agreed. The receipts have "quelled a lot of people's concerns," she said. "People can see how they voted and there's a printed record of that."
The only county that did not get the new machines in every precinct is Clark, where 70 percent of Nevada's 1.1 million voters live. Clark, where Las Vegas is located, has at least one new machine with a printer in every polling place.
For the fall election, half of the county's 835,000 registered voters are expected to cast ballots on machines with printers during a two-week early voting period when voters can cast ballots ahead of Election Day, said Larry Lomax, the county's voter registrar. The remaining 2,186 machines in Clark County are electronic machines that do not produce a paper trail.
Clark County will likely have to buy new machines to comply with a mandate by Heller that all machines in the state must produce a paper trail by 2006, though county commissioners aren't certain how they will come up with the $12 million to $17 million cost.
In Georgia, Cox championed the state's $54 million switch to electronic voting in 2002 and has been dogged by a small but vocal group of activists who question the integrity of the system — even though there is no evidence that an election has ever been manipulated.
This year, Cox fought legislation that would have required all of Georgia's touch-screen voting machines to have a printer that would produce a paper trail. Cox told lawmakers that uniform technological standards for the printers had not been developed on a national level. Spending about $16 million to outfit Georgia's machines could prove unwise if different standards were later developed that made them obsolete, Cox warned.
She also worried that the printers would pose a logistical nightmare for poll workers already overwhelmed by learning a new voting system. Finally, she argued that creating paper evidence of a vote is rife with opportunities for fraud, since paper ballots in the past were notorious for getting lost, replaced or even bought.
Last week, Cox said it would be easy to appease her critics by moving forward with paper trails in Georgia.
"But I have an obligation to make sure I don't create further harm in the election process by doing something that I believe is not ready for prime time," she said.
Glover acknowledges that there are headaches in dealing with printers and hundreds of yards of paper. He said he envisions spending lots of money in the future on mechanical equipment with lots of moving parts that can break down.
"If it instills confidence in people, then, truly, it really might be worth it," Glover said.
Lomax disputes claims that the printers are difficult to use. He does, however, acknowledge the expense. Each roll of paper — an election takes about 7,500 of them — costs $2. The county has had to build a $200,000 vault to properly store and secure the paper ballots after they are used in an election.
Activists push paper
In Georgia, Hugh Esco, a touch-screen voting critic and chairman of the Voter Choice Coalition, said he would be satisfied if the state outfitted its machines with equipment similar to Nevada's. Esco said he would go a step further than Nevada and count the paper ballots as the official record of the election in the event of a close race or recount. So far, Nevada is using the paper trail only to conduct random audits.
But Roxanne Jekot, a Forsyth County computer programmer who co-founded the Web site countthevote.org, said the paper verification used in Nevada is a positive step, but not the ultimate solution.
"I don't believe I would be finished until we do a complete count of all the paper and compare it to the electronic version," Jekot said. "The plan should be that at every precinct those paper ballots should be counted and compared to precinct totals before anything is transmitted to the secretary of state's office."
Jekot, Esco and other activists plan to lobby the 2005 Georgia Legislature to require printers for the state's machines.
'A cure for paranoia'
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law in September requiring that all electronic voting machines produce paper records of every ballot cast beginning in 2006. Many elections officials opposed the bill.
Conny McCormack, registrar-recorder of Los Angeles County, said she believes in the accuracy of computer voting and thinks paper trails are unnecessary. Like Cox, McCormack said there are still too many unanswered questions about the proper handling of paper trails to plunge into an expensive purchase.
"It may be a cure for paranoia, but is it a cure for accurate voting?" McCormack asked. "In my opinion, it's not worth it to try to quell a tiny, vocal minority."
Lomax said he personally doesn't see a need for the printers, either. But he believes standing in the way of paper trails is futile. "I just think the pressure is going to become so great for some paper trail, you might as well smile and accept it," he said. "Because it's coming."