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Elections officials, touch-screen critics sharply disagree on what numbers say

By: DAVE DOWNEY - Staff Writer North County Times   14 November 2004

After all the talk about electronic voting's downsides and the need for an alternative method for casting ballots this fall, a mere 3,719 Riverside County voters requested paper ballots on Election Day, representing just 1.1 percent of those who went to polls to choose a president.

County officials interpret those numbers to mean that, despite concerns about the vulnerability of touch-screens to hacking and technical glitches, Riverside County residents enjoy making choices on the ATM-like machines and aren't worried about whether their votes will be counted.

"I am not surprised," said Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore said of the low number of paper ballots requested. "Voters know in this county that they already have the option of casting a paper ballot by voting absentee. And those who go to the polls do so because they want to vote by touch-screen," she said in an interview last week.

The small number of requests for paper ballots is a clear indication that voters, after 30 straight elections in Riverside County with touch-screens, prefer the simplicity of making choices electronically, Dunmore said.

"It shows that voters in this county have confidence in the electronic voting system," she said.

Electronic-voting critics, who had urged people to make ions by pen and paper instead of by the touch of a finger, came away with a different interpretation.

Jeremiah Akin, a computer programmer in Riverside, said the small number of voters requesting paper ballots shows only that most people had no idea they had an option. To suggest the number reflects personal preference, he said, clashes directly with a recent statewide survey.

The Field Poll, on Nov. 1, reported that 35 percent of California registered voters are not confident their electronic votes are recorded accurately. Skepticism runs highest among Democrats, 41 percent of whom are doubtful about the veracity of touch-screens. But Republicans also have doubts; about one-fourth of those polled expressed a lack of confidence in the new technology.

The poll aside, it doesn't make sense to read something into the low number when voters were not told at the polls that they had two voting-method options, Akin said.

"It'd be like asking people to choose between Snickers and Reeses, and then proclaiming that nobody likes M & Ms," Akin said. "You would have seen a much different number had people been informed that they could have voted by paper ballot."

The no-tell policy

Dunmore said before the election that poll workers were instructed not to inform voters they could vote by paper on Election Day rather than using the computer touch-screens. She said workers were told to assume that everyone coming in through the doors of a school, church or fire station set up as a precinct poll would be satisfied using a touch-screen and not to mention the alternative.

But if someone requested a paper ballot, a poll worker was supposed to furnish one. Apparently, not everyone got the message.

Jean Eikelberger, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Corona, said she ran into a wall of resistance when she asked for a paper ballot.

"The response was like, 'What? No, you do the electronic ballot,' " Eikelberger said.

The female poll worker then got up and walked over to discuss the matter with other workers. Then she came back.

"She looks at me and says, 'You know, you should have requested an absentee ballot. This is really causing a problem. This is really making things difficult,'" Eikelberger said. "There just weren't any happy faces in there. They were real upset."

Eikelberger stuck to her guns and exercised her option.

The paper option was something that was ordered by the California secretary of state. Besides offering traditional paper absentee ballots, Riverside and nine other counties were directed also to provide paper ballots to people who walked into a precinct on Election Day.

Secretary of State Kevin Shelley gave the order amid growing concern statewide about the security of electronic voting and after the malfunction of machines in counties such as San Diego during the March primary. The idea was to increase voters' confidence that their votes would be counted.

In some parts of the country Nov. 2, votes weren't counted.

In one North Carolina county, more than 4,500 votes were lost when officials tried to pack more information into a computer that stored ballots electronically than the machine was designed for, according to the Associated Press. In a suburban Columbus, Ohio, county, President Bush was awarded more than 4,200 votes even though records showed just 638 voters cast ballots.

Smooth, not successful

In the case of Ohio, the error was caught and fixed.

But the North Carolina votes were lost permanently.

"Once lost, you cannot retrieve them," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the Sacramento-based voting-rights group, California Voter Foundation. "There's no recourse for those voters."

Elsewhere in the country, technical glitches prevented people from voting, at least temporarily. In a scene reminiscent of San Diego County in the March primary, touch-screens did not work when polls opened in the morning, and it took workers an hour and half to get them up and running.

Only minor glitches were reported in California.

"Fortunately, we had a smooth election," Alexander said. "Things went much better than they did in the March primary for California voters. I'm relieved that we didn't have a meltdown."

However, she said, "People shouldn't confuse a smooth election with a successful election. To me, a successful election is one that produces results that can be publicly verified."

David Dill, a Stanford University computer science professor who recently served on a statewide electronic voting task force, said the problem is there is still no way to independently check to make sure numbers stored inside computers accurately reflect votes.

"It's a technology that operates without a safety net," Dill said.

He and Alexander are looking forward to 2006, when California counties will be required by law to equip each touch-screen with a so-called voter verifiable paper audit trail, a paper record that enables voters to confirm ions before casting ballots. The record is something voters can view from behind a clear plastic screen. It is not a receipt voters take home.

Dunmore, Riverside County's elections chief, however, said the touch-screen retrofit will be very expensive and, judging by the low number of requested paper ballots, a waste of taxpayers' money.

Dunmore said the retrofit expense will be in addition to the $50,000 already spent on 125,000 paper ballots that went largely unused this fall, and the storage expense the county faces because the law requires that those ballots be preserved for 22 months. Riverside County has 770,000 registered voters.

Nevada out in front

Voting-rights activists suggest the paper trail is well worth the expense because it will protect one of Americans' most basic rights: the right to vote.

Alexander predicted the paper record will boost voter confidence, provide a reliable backup for elections officials to consult in recounts and prevent votes from being lost, as they were in North Carolina.

The paper trail made its national debut on a wide scale this fall in Nevada. And reports so far suggest the system worked well throughout that state. San Bernardino County rolled out a demonstration of the technology, but it was limited to one polling place.

Alexander called Nevada's lead a "huge step forward." At the same time, Nevada's system, manufactured by Northern California-based Sequoia Voting Systems, is hardly perfect, she said.

Votes are stored on a paper roll wrapped around a spool, much like cash-register tape. Because rolls store votes sequentially, Alexander said, they open the door for poll watchers to discover how people voted, if they count voters coming through the door and compare that with vote records.

To rectify that problem, she proposes a redesign that cuts paper after each person votes and sorts vote records randomly for storage.

"I was hoping they would produce something that is more like a ballot and less like an ATM receipt," Alexander said.

Akin agrees the Nevada paper trail is not a cure-all. It's a step in the right direction, he said, but one of many more needed.

"I'm not very impressed with the product Sequoia came out with for the paper trail," Akin said. "But, it's definitely much better than what we have here in Riverside County."

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