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Paper trail may become part of election

State leaders discuss alternatives to prevent lost ballots, sabotage

MARK JOHNSON   Charlotte Observer   21 December 2004

RALEIGH - More than a dozen voting machines were lined up like cars in a showroom for state legislators Monday, and Berkly Trumbo had the newest sports model everyone wanted to see.

Trumbo, a sales executive for Sequoia Voting Systems, was demonstrating his company's "Edge" machine that both records a voter's choices and prints a paper copy that the voter can see but not touch.

That type of machine may yield a system that will help restore voters' confidence. Public doubts about the reliability of voting technology have lingered nationally since the Florida vote counting debacle of 2000 and were exacerbated in North Carolina this year by a variety of foul-ups, including the loss of nearly 4,500 votes in Carteret County.

"Our phone's been ringing off the hook since the November election," Trumbo said. His machine, which debuted in Nevada this year, uses a computer touch-screen display. After completing the ballot, the voter prints out his or her choices. An attachment in a compartment to the left, separated by glass, prints the ballot on a roll of paper, similar to a cash register tape.

Election Systems & Software also exhibited a similar prototype machine.

North Carolina plans to buy about $80 million in new voting machines by 2006, but officials will wait for federal standards before making any major decisions.

A paper copy of the ballot is an insurance policy, a back-up in case the electronic recording of votes is lost, damaged or tampered with, said Justin Moore, a doctoral candidate in computer science at Duke University. The paper, which remains in a secured container, is not a complete solution but helps reassure voters that their choices were recorded and helps reduce the danger of irretrievably losing votes.

"If you minimize risk, you increase trust," said Moore, a member of the National Committee for Voting Integrity, an affiliation of computer scientists, elections officials and policy makers working toward a system that allows voters to verify their choices. Moore is helping advise the special General Assembly committee on electronic voting changes that met for the second time Monday.

Witnesses who addressed Monday's meeting helped illustrate the three camps in the voting machine debate. One group is the anti-paper contingent, including some local elections officials, who are skeptical, or downright hostile, to the idea of adding a paper ballot. They argue that paper is expensive and cumbersome and electronic systems have served them well.

"It's still the same system you don't trust that's producing the (paper) ballot," said Ronald Gregory, chairman of the Durham County Board of Elections.

That's where ballot chain of custody comes in, said Moore, who falls into the second group, the pro-paper camp.

"Sure, an individual could grab one ballot box and throw it into the river," he said, "but a single hacker or a single computer error can alter thousands of votes."

In Carteret County, for example, officials lacked a paper copy of the 4,438 votes that were accepted but not recorded by a malfunctioning machine.

The special legislative committee, which includes local leaders, computer experts and other non-politicians, makes up the third camp in the debate those trying to form a balance between the other two.

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