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Panel pushes paper vote trail
Some see paper vote trail as the answer; some officials say the system will be foolproof only if mandatory

By LYNN BONNER, News and Observer Staff Writer    27 November 2004

As the state deals with the fallout from the loss of more than 4,400 ballots by a Carteret County voting machine, some members of a new legislative committee are ready to push for paper backup records of computerized ballots.

The committee is going to debate whether voting systems that feature computer screens like those used in 41 North Carolina counties should be banned unless they produce printed versions of completed ballots voters can examine.

The group includes vocal supporters of such "voter-verifiable" paper records.

"Especially after this last election, we see the need for scrutinizing all of these machines and providing for paper back-up," said state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Carrboro Democrat and one of the committee leaders.

But state elections officials who have seen paper backup electronic voting systems don't all agree that the state needs it.

Computerized equipment that could print ballot copies made a big splash in Nevada this year. Three members of North Carolina's elections board went west to see the operation, which has been touted as a boon to election integrity.

Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller used federal money to buy machines that would produce a paper trail.

North Carolina elections board Chairman Larry Leake watched the Nevada machines in action during that state's primary. The system allows voters to look at their completed ballots before they make the decision to cast them. A paper copy of each ballot is kept for election officials.

Nevada is "on the right track," Leake said. "I think we need a backup paper trail."

But elections board member Charles Winfree, who watched the Nevada voting Nov. 2, isn't sold on a paper trail as the cure for Carteret-type mistakes. An electronic system in Carteret lost more than 4,400 ballots cast during early voting.

Since voters don't have to check their votes on paper before casting them, lost votes could go unnoticed, Winfree said.

"I don't think it buys you anything," he said. "You have to make it mandatory to make it a foolproof paper trail."

Steve George, Heller's spokesman, said not all voters checked their ballots. "The percentage of people that do keep it honest," he said.

Some committee members want the committee to go beyond a paper-trail requirement and consider more changes.

Warren Murphy, co-chairman of the state governing board for Common Cause, wants the state to replace the brains of the electronic voting systems the manufacturers provide with computer code the state writes.

Ensuring voters that their ballots are counted is just one step, said Murphy, a committee member. People should be confident that the counts are accurate.

State Sen. Austin Allran, a Catawba County Republican and a committee chairman, said he worries that accuracy will be undermined by mistakes or tampering.

"They can be programmed to do things they shouldn't be doing," Allran said of the computerized voting systems. "The public doesn't know how these machines work. I'm not totally sure the boards of election understand it. And there's no central state standard."

Kinnaird wants the committee, which starts meeting in December, to have its report and recommendations ready when the General Assembly meets in January.

"There's no sense in wasting the taxpayers' money on just talking," she said.

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