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Election paper trail would lead to trust
While Georgia's secretary of state lauds electronic voting, she must allay the concerns of the leery.

Opinion   Atlanta Journal Constitution 11/26/04

Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox has been so giddy about the electronic voting machines used by millions on Election Day that the Ohio-based manufacturer features her in its online sales pitch.

"Just say the word, and Diebold will provide a solution," Cox gushes on the company's Web site, which includes an image of the Georgia state seal beside her testimonial. "Hundreds of jurisdictions have used Diebold Election Systems solutions to provide accurate, secure elections. But don't take our word for it. Our customers that have put Diebold solutions to work say it best!"
Those customers Cox is referring to are Georgia voters, the proud owners of 28,000 touch-screen machines purchased from Diebold for $54 million. After the 2000 presidential election fiasco in Florida, Georgia became the first state in the nation to fully adopt e-voting machines.

Although a majority of state voters polled after the election were satisfied with the machines, others have valid reasons to be wary of the technology and the company behind it. That's why Cox, who hopes to run for governor someday, must assure voters that the machines provide them with printed records until those nagging questions are resolved.

Here's how the system would work: After using the touch-screen machine and reviewing their paper ballot, voters would retain a copy as a permanent record and deposit another copy in a ballot box. As a spot check, some paper ballots could then be routinely hand-counted and compared to the electronic vote. In a disputed race, all paper ballots would be recounted.

That doesn't seem too much to ask. But prior to the election, Cox tried to dismiss skeptics of the electronic voting machines as conspiracy theorists or anti-technology extremists who prefer the familiar, but less reliable punch card and optical scan ballots. That's not necessarily true. Among those continuing to express grave doubts are computer security experts, fair-voting advocates and, most telling, Cox's counterparts in states who understand that the equivalent of a printed "receipt" increases voter confidence in the process.

Most of the complaints about Diebold and a few other voting machine manufacturers have focused on proprietary software that's allegedly vulnerable to hackers or miscreants with access to sensitive computer code. Critics also have reservations about the lax national standards for certifying the equipment that's mostly hidden from public scrutiny or rigorous federal oversight.

Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell, a prominent Republican fund-raiser, didn't help matters this year when he promised to help "deliver" the votes needed for President Bush to win re-election. Cox, a Democrat, recalls cringing when she heard O'Dell's remark.

Technology specialist Richard Searcy, a critic of Georgia's system, says the state has what he calls a "faith-based" voting system.

"With our current system, we cannot depend on the process, testing or certification to protect voters from fraud, machine failure, 'Trojan Horse' programming, or bugs and glitches in the system," Searcy said. "Without a paper trail how can votes be audited? How can there be a recount?"

Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller took a novel approach to finding the best voting machine system for his state: He asked experts who test Las Vegas slot machines. Members of the state gaming board eventually picked Sequoia Voting Systems, a Diebold competitor, which equips its touch-screen machines with a voter-verified paper trail.

After warnings that his state's paperless voting systems weren't properly certified, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelly launched an investigation of software used in that state's gubernatorial recall election last year. The probe resulted in Shelly requiring all counties that buy touch-screen voting machines to provide a paper audit trail by next July.

Four counties were ordered to add printers to existing machines by 2006, making California the first state to force equipment vendors to retrofit machines already installed in voting precincts.

Although it seems unlikely, the Georgia Legislature should revive a failed measure that would require Diebold machines used in Georgia to produce paper records in case of a recount.

Granted, requiring paper ballots for every machine may be unwieldy and expensive. A spokesman for Cox said retrofitting touch-screen machines with printers in all 159 Georgia counties would cost between $15 million and $37 million. But fair elections are too important to haggle over, and the benefits of building voter trust in the system would be well worth the cost.

Someday, all Americans may come to accept electronic voting as secure. Until then a printed copy of their ballot would reassure the skeptical.

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