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Future of electronic voting may hinge on success this year

Oct 18, 2004
By Deborah Barfield Berry
Washington Bureau   Newsday

October 19, 2004

Las Vegas Donna Matthews headed to the mall Saturday intent on casting her ballot. The 63-year-old, who has voted in every presidential race since she was 18, said it couldn't have been simpler. She touched a computer screen, reviewed her choices then watched as a paper receipt confirmed her picks.

"I'm from the old school, I want to go back and review. That's important," said Matthews, impressed by the new electronic machine's alert that her presidential ion had not initially been recorded. "I don't want any more elections ... to be anything like Florida. I want my vote to count."

Matthews was among the first here to take advantage of early voting and among the first to cast a ballot for the 2004 presidential race on Nevada's newest electronic voting machines, ones equipped with a first-ever paper trail. Nevada has become a national test case for the use of electronic voting machines.

Nevada is one of only a handful of states to use the machines statewide and the only one to provide a paper trail for voters. What happens in the battleground state could impact what other states do with their own voting systems and may help federal election officials craft national guidelines.

"It's scary," said Donna Cardinelli, assistant registrar of voters in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located and the hub of election activity here. "We can't mess up."

Voting systems vary from state to state, and sometimes county to county, because voting equipment is often purchased at the local level. Some states, such as New Mexico and Florida, will use a mix of equipment, including electronic voting machines and punch cards. New York voters will still use lever machines.

Many states put off buying electronic voting machines because of concerns about reliability, the lack of a paper trail of cast ballots and because there are no federal election guidelines for their use.

"Election officials will have an eye on states like Nevada," said Jennie Bowser, an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "If they have a disaster in Nevada, it could put election officials off. But if things go pretty well, that could serve as an example for an effective system that other states might considering adopting."

Nevada bought new electronic voting machines from Sequoia Voting Systems with $9.7 million in funding from the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Clark County has been using electronic voting machines since 1994, and voters will cast ballots on both new and old machines. But the older machines don't produce paper records, although they'll be retrofitted with devices to do so by 2006.

Statewide, more than half the electronic voting machines will have paper trails. The device, which is attached to the side of the computer, prints the ed choices and allows each voter to view it through an enclosed case. The voter can make changes or cast the ballot, which completes the vote. The printout then scrolls upward so the next voter can't see it.

Only election officials have access to the printouts, which could be used in recounts.

Cardinelli said the county has had good experiences with electronic machines, even without the paper trail, but, "There's a need to have a paper trail to make the voter feel comfortable."

Alice Hazarian, who used the new equipment Saturday, praised the technology and a process that took only minutes.

"It's easier much, much easier," said Hazarian, 44. "And I hate computers."

Civil rights groups and some computer experts, however, have raised concerns about the reliability and security of electronic voting machines. Some have sued states over the use of the machines without paper trails. The groups argue that paper trails help voters confirm that their ballots have been tabulated correctly.

Several states, including Illinois, Alaska, California, Ohio and Wisconsin, have passed legislation requiring paper trails for electronic voting machines, Bowser said.

Nationally, about 29 percent of voters will use the electronic machines, said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc., a research company .

The machineswith the paper receipts were put to a test during Nevada's primary in September. Voting experts and election officials say that election went smoothly.

Still,,Brace said there are concerns, including how smoothly the process will go Nov. 2 when there is a full slate of candidates and initiatives on the ballot, compared with the smaller-scale ballot during the primary. The ballot printouts could be much longer than those from the primary. Brace said that could mean longer waits and more maintenance as the paper is constantly refilled.

Brace said there are also concerns about attaching paper trail devices to old machines.

While Nevada has not been sued over its use of electronic voting machines, it has faced other challenges. Democrats several weeks ago sued the state over voter registration, charging that a company hired by the Republicans to process applications had thrown out some submitted by Democrats. They wanted registration reopened, but a county district court judge denied the petition.

Republicans wanted to remove 17,000 inactive Democratic voters from the rolls. Election officials rejected the challenge, saying the law allows some inactive voters, or those who have not voted in a recent elections, to cast ballots.

Meanwhile, Nevada election officials have been swamped with a record number of new voter registrations. Last Tuesday, the registration deadline, the county received about 4,000 new applications.

In a huge warehouse here Friday, thousands of electronic voting machines were lined up and tagged ready for shipment to grocery stores, malls and even a site behind a casino.

Within three hours at a mall Saturday, more than 500 people had voted at a site set up near a food court.

Corey Bishop and his wife, Raelene, took a break from shopping to vote. Bishop, who has used paper ballots before, said he liked the ease of using the new machines and the paper confirmation, which he said offered a sense of security.

"I feel more comfortable because it put it out on a little ticket and it's proof," said Bishop, 26. "If people realize how easy it is, maybe a lot more people would come out and vote."

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