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A touch of controversy

By Joyce Howard Price

The turmoil that surrounded the 2000 presidential-vote recount in Florida prompted a national call for an overhaul of the nation's voting systems. Early on, many eyed electronic voting — specifically, touch-screen machines — as the best solution.
    Four years later, that "solution" has created as much uncertainty as confidence.
    Touch-screen "machines can give results, but no one knows if they are accurate, because they can't produce a recount," said Aviel Rubin, a computer sciences professor at Johns Hopkins University, who has studied electronic voting machines in depth.
    Mr. Rubin, also technical director of the Information Security Institute at Hopkins, added: "I'm hoping we have a landslide on Nov. 2. For if we have a close election, it could be a disaster."
    Paul DeGregorio, a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a panel that provides federal money to states to help them reform elections, put it this way: "Some people say touch-screen machines are tools of the devil. Others say these systems are saviors of the election and everything in between. What we do know is that these machines have been used successfully and can be used successfully."
    In Florida, things went smoothly in the Aug. 31 primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat. Fifteen of 67 Florida counties used touch-screen machines.
    "There were absolutely no problems with the electronic voting machines. ... The secretary of state was very pleased," said Alia Faraj, a spokeswoman for that office.
    But some skeptics remained unconvinced, pointing out that turnout for that election will be much less than that expected on Nov. 2.
    Mr. Rubin and others in the field also condemn the refusal by firms that certify voting equipment to say publicly whether they have encountered shoddy workmanship in any machines they've tested.
    "It's a travesty that testing results are not being made public," he said. "This whole veil of secrecy that exists is the opposite of what you want when it comes to voting in a democracy."
    Nationally, only about 29 percent of voters will be using electronic voting Nov. 2. And they will be doing so amid questions about the system's security and dependability.
    Only four states — Delaware, Georgia, Maryland and Nevada — will be using electronic voting systems exclusively for the Nov. 2 elections.
    About a third of voters nationwide will be using optical-scan equipment, said Election Data Services Inc., a District-based consulting firm. Optical scans require running paper ballots through electronic tabulators.
    Most voters, however, will find the procedures for voting in their state varying widely from county to county or precinct to precinct. It's a reflection of the changing face of how the nation votes — a reflection that is slow to change.
    Battleground state is a mix
    In battleground state Ohio, between 65 and 69 of the state's 88 counties will be using punch-card voting machines, said James Lee, spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.
    "Five counties will use electronic voting, and the rest — including two counties that used lever voting in 2000 — will be using optical scans," Mr. Lee said. Nationally, most voters will be using the latter system.
    Unlike the situation in Florida four years ago, Mr. Lee said, "We have clear standards for how punch-card votes are to be counted, and those standards are codified into law."
    In addition, punch-card voting in Ohio on Nov. 2 will be without the so-called butterfly ballots whose confusing design contributed to voting problems in Palm Beach County, Fla., in 2000. Butterfly ballots listed the names of presidential candidates on opposing pages, which reportedly led some voters to the wrong candidate.
    What's more, voters who make mistakes on punch-card ballots in Ohio can request new ballots to fix their errors, said Jane Klatten, administrator of elections in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland.
    It was initially expected that all Ohio counties would use d machines in this election. "But we encountered several problems," Mr. Lee said.
    "First of all, the Ohio General Assembly decided only 31 counties could use d machines. And the legislature further stipulated that there needed to be better paper trails, voter-verifiable trails, where d machines were used, and that technology has not been approved yet in Ohio," he said.
    Touchy over touch-screens
    A key concern in Ohio and other states hesitant about taking a full plunge with touch-screen voting machines is that they work without any paper or ballot receipt, leaving no tangible trail for a recount or audit after an election.
    In a typical touch-screen recount, a registrar reproduces only the total vote delivered by each machine. Critics say such numbers fail to indicate whether votes were misrecorded as a result of software glitches or interference by hackers.
    Election law in Illinois requires a paper trail. Because of that requirement, Illinois will not be using any touch-screen machines in next month's election. Most political jurisdictions in that state will be using optical scans, followed by punch-card machines.
    "But in Chicago and Cook County, the two largest jurisdictions, there will be ballot precinct counters at each polling place. These kick back ballots in cases of an overvote or undervote," said Dianne Felts, director of voting systems and standards for the Illinois Board of Elections.
    A paper record of each vote was considered a crucial factor in the August recall election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, which used touch-screen machines. Mr. Chavez remained in office by a vote of 59 percent to 41 percent after the votes were retabulated using the paper trail.
    Even with the paper record, many remain suspicious of the outcome.
    International organizations, such as the Carter Center, which supports open elections, and the Organization of American States concluded the election was fair, but Carter Center officials said they will continue to investigate accusations of fraud as they prepare their final report on the issue.
    These potential problems have placed the electronic systems under heavy scrutiny. Poll watchers in Ohio, Nevada, Florida, California, Maryland, Delaware and other states where touch-screen machines will be in use plan to analyze results to determine if the tallies match exit polls.
    In California, 10 of 58 counties will be using touch-screen machines, while an 11th ?? Los Angeles County ?? will be using them for early voting only, according to a spokesman for Secretary of State Kevin Shelley.
    Mr. Shelley banned jurisdictions from using electronic voting machines unless they met a series of security requirements or were equipped with printers to keep tabs on each vote. A federal court subsequently upheld the state mandate.
    Because of problems with touch-screen voting machines in Florida in the 2002 gubernatorial primary, those machines were closely scrutinized in the Aug. 31 primary to choose party nominees for the U.S. Senate.
    An investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union of touch-screen voting in the 2002 Florida primary found that 8 percent of votes on Miami-Dade County's electronic machines in 31 precincts were lost. What's more, in that same election, audit logs of Electronic Systems & Software Inc. found touch-screen machines used in 11 Florida counties were corrupted by a software flaw caused by low batteries.
    Despite the concerns, firms that test these machines — such as Ciber Inc. and Wyle Laboratories Inc., in Huntsville, Ala., and SysTest Labs in Denver ?? refuse to discuss flaws in equipment they check out. Although tax money ultimately buys or leases the voting machines in question, the companies say their contracts with voting-machine makers mandate secrecy for competitive purposes.
    Mr. Rubin of Hopkins said he's been spending a lot of time in the District trying to convince members of Congress that there should be federal legislation requiring openness in this area.
    Michael Shamos, a computer scientist and electronic voting specialist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, expressed similar concerns at a House subcommittee hearing June 24.
    "The system we have for testing and certifying voting equipment in this country is not only broken, but is virtually nonexistent," he said. "I find it grotesque that an organization charged with such a heavy responsibility feels no obligation to explain to anyone what it is doing." 
      Helping America vote
    Because of the debacle in Florida in 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2004 to help states acquire modern, although not necessarily electronic, voting equipment. As of Sept. 1, HAVA payments to states in the current fiscal year totaled more than $2.3 billion.
    "This was the very first time in U.S. history that the federal government provided money for elections. Not until Florida came along in 2000 was attention really paid to elections. Now the federal government is taking the lead in this area," said Mr. DeGregorio of EAC.
    The four-member Election Assistance Commission was created by Congress to dole out HAVA dollars to the states and to formulate new standards for the various types of modern voting systems.
    But Mr. DeGregorio, a former election official in Missouri, said the panel was not appointed until December 2003, almost a year later than originally planned. He said the commission's work also was delayed by low funding levels. As a result, he said, the EAC does not have guidelines ready for the upcoming election.
    Said Mr. Rubin: "Most of the commission's security standards have not been completed, so whatever we have now is what we will have on Election Day."
    In Ohio, the inability of electronic voting-machine vendors to make the corrections called for by state election officials prohibited the use of HAVA tax dollars for their acquisition, Mr. Lee said. As a result, he said, "even Ohio counties that chose to move forward" with electronic machines bought the equipment with their own funds.
    One state — New York — received $66 million in HAVA money last year but has been unable to use it, and it received no federal money this year, said Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections. The reason for the holdup, he said, is that state legislators failed to decide how they intend to comply with federal election-reform mandates.
    On Nov. 2, Mr. Daghlian said, several New York communities will use electronic voting machines. "But 99.9 percent of voters in the state will use lever machines."
    HAVA legislation requires that all states have a concept known as "provisional voting" in place this year. Provisional voting allows a person not on a voting list to go ahead and mark a ballot. The ballot will be kept to the side while registration records are checked to determine the person's eligibility. If the voter is eligible, the ballot will be counted as part of the official total.
    Still, Mr. Lee of the Ohio Secretary of State's Office said, "the integrity of an election comes down to the policies and procedures in place, the training poll workers receive, and the trustworthiness of elections officials."
    Old vs. new
    Despite all the talk of electronic voting, millions of voters on Nov. 2 will use the traditional prescored punch cards — ballots that have been perforated and are ready to be punched out by the voter. Others will use Datavote punch-card machines that feature a staplelike tool that creates a hole in the ballot.
    While voting reforms are designed to make it easier to vote and, theoretically, to increase participation in elections, a study released last month by the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a District-based research group, found that some reforms actually hurt voter turnout.
    The CSAE study found that both early voting and "no excuse" absentee voting have had this negative effect. As of this year, 10 states have adopted early voting, which allows citizens to vote at designated satellite locations, such as shopping centers or libraries, before Election Day.
    In 24 states, a registered voter can apply for and receive an absentee ballot without giving a reason for the need. But he must have a valid reason in 26 other states and the District.
    Nearer to home, 28 of 134 cities, towns or counties in Virginia will be using touch-screen voting machines, said Jean Jensen, secretary of the state Board of Elections. Among locations not using electronic voting, Ms. Jensen said, "Some will be using punch cards, some will stick with lever machines, and others will be using paper ballots."
    In the District, there will be one touch-screen machine in every precinct, and there also will be optical scans systemwide. The presence of touch-screens in all 142 precincts came about as a result of a lawsuit, in which disabled persons argued that the optical scans reduced their access to voting, an election spokesman said.
    Repeated news stories have been published about problems Maryland supposedly had in an election in 2002 with voting machines manufactured by the Ohio-based Diebold Election System.
    But Donna Duncan, director of the election management division of the Maryland State Board of Elections, said the problems experienced at "two or three precincts" resulted from human error.
    "There was a mix-up of encoder cards. As a result, the machines didn't recognize the codes," Ms. Duncan said. "The machines performed exactly as they were supposed to."
    All 23 Maryland counties will be using Diebold AccuVote-TSX touch-screen voting machines in the upcoming general election, she said. Baltimore city voters also will be casting ballots electronically, using an older machine.
    It is the Pentagon's responsibility to gather absentee ballots for about 6.5 million American voters overseas. In 2000, nearly a third of registered U.S. voters living abroad did not receive ballots in time to vote.
    Ballots predominantly will be cast by mail or fax. In February, the Pentagon canceled a $22 million program to develop an overseas voting program on the Internet, saying it could not make the system secure.
    In the homestretch
    Virginia's Ms. Jensen predicts a smooth election process in her state.
    She said some jurisdictions have been using electronic voting systems for several years "and we have not had any problems."
    Larry Lomax, registrar of voters in Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, is equally as confident of a successful election in his battleground state.
    Nevada election officials tapped Sequoia Voting Systems Co. of Oakland, Calif., to provide touch-screen and other computerized voting machines, specifically because Sequoia could provide an ATM-style printer, which allows a paper trail.
    Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller used HAVA funding to buy more than 1,000 printers, which cost $500 per unit, as well as 1,935 touch-screen voting machines, priced at $2,500 each.
    Mr. Lomax said touch-screen machines will be used exclusively in all counties except his own, Clark, which includes 70 percent of Nevada's voters.
    "We're using 740 touch-screen machines, plus another 2,000 computerized machines. Of the touch-screens, we bought 200 in 2002 and 540 this year," he said.
    Mr. Lomax said he expects "things to be much easier here in Nevada" on Election Day than in some other parts of the country, "since we've been using electronic voting since 1996." He jokes that such machines are popular in his state, "because they remind people of video poker."



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