October 31, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Does e-voting need paper trails?

After reports of a rocky primary election this year, Maryland's Republican governor turned heads even outside the Old Line State when he called for a return to all-paper ballots.

"When in doubt, go paper, go low-tech," said Gov. Robert Ehrlich, according to various press reports, one week after polls closed in mid-September.

His 11th-hour suggestion has garnered little support so far from elections administrators. Come Nov. 7, Maryland and 16 other states are expected to forge ahead with a certain breed of computerized machine that does not include what amounts to a receipt, or a voter-verified paper audit trail, according to research compiled by the nonprofit Election Reform Information Project.

All told, 37 states and 39 percent of the voting population are expected to use voting equipment known as a direct-recording electronic (DRE) system, either with or without a paper trail, according to the advocacy group Common Cause, which describes itself as a proponent of "open and accountable" government.

With endorsements for the paper-trail technique piled on by influential election reform advocates and even an ever-skeptical crowd of computer science academics, what's the hold-up?

The answer lies in a complex mix of politics, money and available options on the market, election office representatives and their critics say.

"The officials have spent gazillions of dollars (largely reimbursed by the federal government under the Help America Vote Act) to buy what they have now," said Eugene Spafford, a computer science professor and director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University. "Any additions will need to come out of local budgets, so they are looking for ways to avoid incurring that expense. They can't return or throw out the existing machines without huge expense, and modification won't be cheap, either."

That was the case made by Maryland's top election administrator and the legislature's Democratic leaders. With Ehrlich's suggestion arriving less than two months before the election, some called it crazy to strand $106 million worth of electronic voting equipment.

No massive incidents of fraud have been reported yet involving DRE machines, which were designed to tabulate votes internally, often without producing a paper record. They have nonetheless created ongoing concern among voter transparency advocates and computer scientists because of their perceived susceptibility to hacking and general malfunctioning. And those worries are not entirely theoretical: A recent report by Common Cause (click for PDF) cited seven reported occasions since 2002 in which votes were mysteriously added or subtracted in states like Florida, Texas and North Carolina--and without paper records to shed light on the anomalies.

Image: Voting map

Many computer scientists remain convinced that a paper receipt is the single most effective safeguard against computer glitches--or something more malicious. Princeton University computer science Professor Ed Felten, who recently co-authored a report on vulnerabilities in a DRE system expected to be used in 357 counties this year, said there are two reasons for paper receipts: They give voters an inspectable record of their intent that can "no longer be modified by any software," and it's an important back-up for those doing recounts or audits.

"Paper and electronic records have different failure modes, so it will require separate accidents or separate security attacks to modify or destroy them both," Felten said.

But not all states are convinced there's a real problem. "Those studies, the ones that we've looked at here so far, mostly rely on unimpeded access to the system," said Rosanna Bencoach, policy manager for the Virginia State Board of Elections. "They totally ignore the security that is normally involved in these systems and that both (political) parties legally can have their representatives present...to watch everything that happens during the day and to watch the count that night."

Virginia's legislature was among a dozen state houses that also considered, but did not enact, its own paper trail requirement this year, according to the advocacy group Verified Voting, which lobbies for such rules. But those proposals, which called for a pilot program for paper trail technology, ultimately stalled in part because of budget considerations, Bencoach said.

"First there's the financial impact of doing the pilot, and then there's the financial impact of adding it to all these machines they just bought in the last few years, and no federal money to help with this add-on," Bencoach said.

Billions of federal dollars and a congressional mandate under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) have already pushed states to undertake what is considered to be the largest overhaul of voting equipment in U.S. history.

The four-year-old law, which grew in part out of the hanging-chad debacle of the 2000 presidential elections, required states to shift to electronic voting systems, but it made no mention of paper-based audit trails--nor did it set aside extra money for them. Several members of Congress have offered attempts at amending the law to include such requirements, and one committee held a hearing on the topic last month. But those lawmaking efforts did not make it to a vote in this session.

CONTINUED: Problems on the paper trail…
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