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Electronic voting: A trust issue

As the nation heads into a presidential election year, the technology takes center stage. It is not error-free.

By Linda K. Harris

Inquirer Staff Writer


As the nation approaches its first presidential election since the controversial Florida count gave George W. Bush the White House, debate is heating up over the security and accuracy of electronic-voting machines.

This time, about 43 million voters - more than a third of those expected to vote - will make their ions via electronics.

In Pennsylvania, eight counties, including Philadelphia and Montgomery, will use electronic ballots, which enable quick tallies after polls close. So will 15 counties in New Jersey, including Gloucester and Burlington.

Swirling around the machines is the issue of trust - or lack of it.

Because computer software controls the voting machines, some worry that an election could be rigged by the few insiders with access to the software, or by outsiders who hack their way in. Discovery could be difficult.

In contrast, the old lever machines, used in Bucks, Delaware and Camden Counties, are low-tech. Tampering is easy to detect.

Even with the old VotoMatic and its chad-inducing punch cards, which Chester County has not yet replaced, spoiled ballots can be visually examined, though the voter's intent cannot always be deciphered.

Advocates say electronic voting is more efficient, with tallies less subject to human errors.

"There's no standing there arguing over whether the guy got two votes or 20," said Norman Berson, Democratic leader in Philadelphia's Eighth Ward. "Polls are open 13 hours. When they close, taking off the totals can take a good bit of time. This eliminates all that."

Alfie Charles, a vice president of Sequoia Voting Systems, which makes some of the electronic machines used in the area, said they were secure.

"The biggest problem is probably perception. Legitimate Election Day issues are human interaction and training of the poll workers to make sure they set up the equipment properly," Charles said.

Research groups and watchdog organizations that sprang up after 2000, however, are expressing concerns that voters cannot independently verify that the machine is recording the intended vote.

Rebecca Mercuri, a computer-security expert and Harvard University research fellow, likened it to the fears people might have if they did not get a receipt for their electronic cash deposits.

"It's like, 'We're never going to give you a receipt and we're never going to send you a bank statement.' I don't think anyone would go to that bank," she said.

Mercuri will testify today at a hearing on electronic-voting machines, at noon in Room 201 of City Hall.

"I have a lot of questions about these electronic machines," said State Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.), who called for the hearing.

Some concerns include:

Can the technology be tampered with to corrupt an election?

Can programming errors distort the outcome of an election?

Should voters receive a receipt to verify their votes?

Stephen Ansolabehere, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who cowrote a study on voting-equipment reliability, said he had never seen a documented case of electronic-machine tampering.

"Without the tampering, there are plenty of other reasons that explain why these machines aren't performing the way they ought to," he said.

The study by researchers at the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project showed that all voting systems have some margin of error, and the electronic machines were hardly better than the old types.

"We want computers to succeed and they didn't," Ansolabehere said. "I think that was one of the most surprising things about doing the study."

The study looked at residual votes - the percentage of votes not cast for president. Exit polls show about 0.5 percent of voters intentionally did not vote for president but the machines in 2000 showed a 1.6 percent nonvote.

In this region, counties have chosen electronic machines that do not use modems or telephone lines, trimming the possibility of outside interference. Philadelphia uses Danaher-Guardian, while Montgomery, Burlington and Gloucester Counties use Sequoia models. Both are push-button, full-ballot machines that show all the candidates on one large ballot, as did the lever machines.

Nevertheless, Montgomery County's Elections Supervisor Joseph Passarella said he would soon put the Sequoia machines used in last fall's election to a test after two voters complained.

Of greater concern is another type of electronic-voting machine that uses a touch screen. Some say it is less user-friendly than the push-button type because voters must scroll through pages of electronic screens.

And, some of these machines are ostensibly more vulnerable to tampering because of their "smart cards" and modems. Diebold machines recently raised a furor in Maryland, after state-hired consultants discovered they could be hacked.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D., Fla.) sued Florida election supervisors, demanding that touch-screen machines be adapted to create a paper trail for possible recounts.

Philadelphia rejected touchscreen technology in favor of the full-ballot machines.

"We got criticized when we bought them because people said we were buying something that's outdated," said Robert Lee, Philadelphia's head of voter registration.

No matter which type is used, there is still the issue of voter confidence, especially if the race is a squeaker. That is relevant for Pennsylvania, which could decide the presidency.

A suggested safeguard is the paper receipt.

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D., N.J.) introduced legislation in May that would require voting machines to produce a paper record; it has yet to advance.

Many groups, including the Committee of Seventy, the local nonpartisan watchdog group, oppose the idea. They fear that complications of adding paper, including printer jams, will complicate the voting process and discourage voters by creating longer lines.

But support for it "is going faster in the court of public opinion than it is in any legislature," said Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Information Project (electionline.org), a clearinghouse for information on electronic-voting machines.

Chapin said that after the 2000 election, the paperless features of electronic voting were seen as a plus. Now, he said, "it's something people are worried about."

California and Nevada have set up a requirement for a voter-verified paper trail. About a dozen states have pending legislation that would do the same.

The printers would add about $800 to the purchase price of each $3,000 machine, said Sequoia's Charles.

In the recent Super Tuesday primary, the majority of the problems reported with electronic machines were not security-related.

In several California counties, voters were turned away because of a variety of difficulties with the machines.

But in Philadelphia, where 3,500 electronic machines have been used since the 2002 primary, problems have been few, said Frederick L. Voigt, executive director of the Committee of Seventy.

"We've had actual experience. It's not a matter of what if. We know what."

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