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Critics Want Electronic Vote Proposals Tossed

By John Voket   The Newtown Bee    28 April 2005

(This is the first of a series of stories on options for Newtown and the rest of Connecticut as the secretary of the state implements requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act.)

There were no protest signs or chanting throngs, just a few mild-mannered professionals gathered in the upper meeting room at Edmond Town Hall Wednesday evening. But the gauntlet that was thrown down may have far-reaching implications in relation to the way Connecticut voters regard the future integrity of local, state, and federal elections.

Representatives of True VoteCT and the state's League of Women Voters came to Newtown this week to continue a process of educating state voters about a situation they say could very well set Connecticut up to be the next Florida or Ohio when it comes to Election Day disasters. The True VoteCT co-founder also used the meeting as an opportunity to call for Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz to rescind a request for proposal (RFP) to six companies vying to supply millions of dollars worth of electronic voting stations to Connecticut cities and towns.

Michael J. Fischer, a Yale computer science professor and co-founder of True VoteCT, was on hand to address his concerns to about a dozen persons who came out for the event. He contends that if Connecticut and Ms Bysiewicz continue with a plan to install one direct recording electronic machine in each polling place by the 2006 general elections, the state could fall victim to the same fate that has been eroding voter confidence since the 2000 Presidential election debacle in Florida.

The incidents of possible miscounted votes in that election led to the eventual passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which places various requirements on states for the conduct of federal elections, Mr Fischer explained. He referenced a handout that spelled out two requirements of the federal mandate:

1. At least one voting machine in each precinct must be accessible to individuals with disabilities and allow them to vote privately and independently.

2. Each voting system used in federal elections must produce a permanent paper record with a manual audit capacity for such systems.

"Both of these requirements take effect January 1, 2006," Mr Fischer said. "And since the mechanical voting machines used throughout Connecticut for more than half a century do not allow for either of these capabilities, they must be upgraded or replaced by the end of this year."

League of Women Voters representative Christine Horrigan told attendees that her organization supports the spirit of the mandate, and that the LWV wants to see a system in place that provides for secure, accurate, recountable, and accessible voting.

She outlined a Connecticut bill currently heading to the state appropriations committee that would require all replacement voting machines to provide two paper trails in the event there are questions about the integrity of any Connecticut precinct's vote tally.

"We want to see a paper record of each vote, as well as the ability to provide a reclamation of all votes once the machine is closed," Ms Horrigan said. "The machine must be able to verify each vote, must give anyone a chance to change their vote before it is finally registered, and the stations must be accessible to the disabled community," she said.

The current legislation, Senate Bill 55, was first introduced in January by Senator Donald DeFronzo. If approved and passed into law as written, the bill would require any voting machine approved for use after January 1, 2006, to be constructed as to produce an individual, permanent, voter-verified paper record for each elector.

But according to Mr Fischer, this is where potential problems, and costs, begin to crop up.

Because of the cost of voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines, and the fact that HAVA grant funds will only be provided for those machines, the state and its municipalities may be forced to outfit their polls with more economical optical scanning stations, he said.

"Connecticut is currently undertaking a piecemeal approach to meeting the federal mandate," Mr Fischer said. "To meet the first requirement of the HAVA legislation, and to maximize grant funding opportunities, Ms Bysiewicz has issued an RFP for one fully accessible Direct Recording Electronic [DRE] machine per precinct."

Mr Fischer said the secretary of state has already accepted the HAVA grant funds for this purpose.

"But to meet the requirement of number two, all towns must submit a compliance plan to the secretary of state's office," he said. "That plan can only offer one or up to three options: replace the lever machines with copies of the DRE machines supplied through the HAVA grant, replace the lever machines with any other HAVA-compliant voting system approved by the secretary of the state, or retrofit the lever machines with devices that make paper impressions of the mechanical vote counters inside."

While it is necessary to ensure Connecticut meets the federal requirements, Mr Fischer contends that the secretary of the state is expediting the RFP process and risking a long-term headache. He believes the six companies in competition for the statewide contract may not be among those with the best, and most secure, technology to ensure complete integrity and accuracy in the process.

"The state is moving too quickly," Mr Fischer said. "Based on what we know of the companies in the running, Connecticut may be excluding some new companies that have developed equipment with better technology, or that are about to launch products that feature better technology."

For this reason, Mr Fischer has called for the secretary of the state to throw out the existing RFP process, and renew the process to accommodate these newcomers to the electronic voting machine market.

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