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All eyes on e-voting as voters get touchy
Today will provide answers to many questions about new technology

By Ian Hoffman for the Tri-Valley Herald. November 2, 2004

Before tens of millions of voters hit the polls, the electronic-voting industry already has declared touch-screen voting a success.

"Returns suggest nothing but the accurate and secure operation of electronic voting machines," said Harris N. Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.

E-voting scholars and critics puzzled over the statement, since no returns are legally available until Election Day and today's crop of machines offer no obvious, independent method of verifying purely electronic votes. "Nobody knows whether they're accurate," said University of Michigan political science professor Michael Traugott, part of a team studying voter interactions with different touchscreens. "They may be easy to use. People may be satisfied with them, but these quality judgments would be completely subjective and not based on empirical data."

Cindy Cohn was blunter.

"Unless they're doing something that's illegal, they don't know," said Cohn, legal director for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group critical of paperless touch-screen voting. "Harris Miller has no idea whether these machines are accurate right now."

ITAA vice president Bob Cohen said the association drew its impressions of e-voting by reading news stories and talking to its member touch-screen manufacturers, who in turn are monitoring reports from the local elections officials who are their customers.

Independent reports, however, show a smattering of e-voting problems in Florida, New Mexico, Texas and elsewhere.

New Mexico Republicans complained at Bush-Cheney headquarters in Albuquerque that Sandoval County e-voting machines switched their Bush votes to Kerry. One Republican candidate for judge found he couldn't vote for himself at first.

In neighboring Bernalillo County, home to a third of the swing state's voters, at least two Kerry voters said touchscreen machines wrongly chalked them up for the president.

"I voted for Kerry and a check mark for Bush appeared," said Michael Cadigan, a lawyer and president of the Albuquerque City Council. "I was extremely careful to accurately touch the button for my choice for president."

In Bexar and Travis counties, Texas Democrats who wanted to vote a straight ticket found two different kinds of machines made by Omaha-based Election Systems & Software and Austin-based Hart InterCivic were trigger-happy to vote for Bush.

Similar reports, as well as voters being given the wrong ballot, were lodged in Broward and Palm Beach counties, two Florida jurisdictions that were at the heart of the 2000 election storm.

In each case, elections officials blamed voter error. Traugott said the problems didn't signal a touchscreen failure but possibly a poor design of the electronic ballot and its interplay with the voter.

It sounded, he said, like "a human-interface problem, not a problem with the technology of the device. It's a ballot problem."

Regardless, said EFF's Cohn, "You shouldn't have to have a surgeon's hand to vote in America."

Voters must be careful to check the final review screen before hitting the "cast ballot" button, she and elections officials said.

"They really need to proof their ballots. This is a problem and we need to fix it, but we can't fix it by tomorrow," Cohn said.

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