February 7, 2007 12:48 PM PST

Politicians call for e-voting paper trails by '08 election

WASHINGTON--A push is under way by congressional Democrats to enact legislation that would require paper trails to accompany all electronic voting machines in time for the 2008 presidential election.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that she expects to introduce a bill within the next week that would revive earlier calls for such a mandate.

"I don't believe we can afford to wait and not require a voter-verified paper record of each voter's vote," Feinstein said at the first hearing here of the new session convened by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, of which she is chairman.

Details on Feinstein's proposal were still being finalized, but aides said it will likely resemble a House of Representatives bill, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), that was reintroduced on Tuesday and has received endorsements from voter advocacy groups and some computer scientists.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he is also drafting a bill that would require paper verification in elections and allow review of the software on e-voting machines when the outcome of a race is in dispute.

"Sometimes those machines may not do what we tell them to do, and that's where we have to have a process by which we can verify whether or not that machine malfunctioned," he told the committee.

The need for new action is acute, the politicians said, because they fear a reprise of what occurred during last year's congressional election in Sarasota County, Fla. When it was reported that more than 18,000 of the county's ballots registered no choice in the House race, watchdogs suggested buggy paperless electronic machines may have been to blame for the perceived irregularities. In the end, Republican Vern Buchanan was certified as the winner of the House race with a 369-vote edge over Democrat Christine Jennings, but litigation is pending.

According to the advocacy group Verified Voting, 27 states already have laws on their books requiring a voter-verified paper trail of some sort, though not all of the requirements have been implemented yet, and not all require subsequent audits. Last week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, proclaimed that every county should make use of paper ballots by 2008. Politicians said they want to expand such requirements across the nation.

"If things stand where they are now, no one will know whom the voters intended to represent them in the House," said Holt, who spoke about his bill at Wednesday's hearing.

Called the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, Holt's 47-page measure would require all voting machines to employ a paper ballot or receipt that would allow voters to review their selections and make changes before their final choices were recorded. A certain percentage of voting precincts in each congressional district would be required to perform regular random audits based on those paper ballots after an election.

The bill also aims to make the machines more hacker- and bug-proof. For instance, it would ban any wireless technology in voting machines and prohibit connecting them to the Internet.

It would also require state elections officials to hand over to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a federal agency charged with overseeing the shift to electronic voting machines, all of the source code and other ballot programming files associated with the machines they certify. In a move that could prove controversial, the EAC under the bill would have to make that information available "for inspection promptly upon request to any person." (The judge presiding in the Sarasota case already ruled that Jennings, the losing candidate, had no right to look at the source code, arguing it was more important to protect the voting machine company's trade secrets.)

Representing a voter's intent

Another idea that could prove contentious is any requirement that paper ballots serve as the "official" representation of a voter's intent in the event of a recount. Some states, such as California, already have such requirements in place. But past and present elections officials cautioned the senators against putting too much stock in the paper trail process.

"If a voting machine paper trail is declared to be the official ballot, we will in fact disenfranchise voters whose ballots were cast when the paper jammed, the printer ran out of toner, or (the receipt) failed to print," said Connie Schmidt, a former Kansas election commissioner.

Holt's bill says the paper receipts would serve as the "true and correct" record during any audits or recounts. It does, however, also contain an exception that would permit elections officials to rely on electronic ballots if there is "clear and convincing" evidence that the paper records have been compromised. It was unclear what path the Senate bills would take, but Feinstein indicated she was mindful of potential paper-related glitches.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the Rules Committee's co-chairman, said he was skeptical that technological change alone could solve problems reported by precincts. He suggested electronic ballot designs, perhaps more than the inner workings of the machines, could affect election outcomes by confusing voters--including the senator himself when he ventured to the polls last year.

It's also important to pay attention to "human factors," Bennett said, because "we do have a long history of vote fraud and rigging elections that predates any discussion of electronic voting."

Holt's proposal currently enjoys sponsorship from 174 politicians, 17 of whom are Republicans. With a Democrat-controlled House, he may have more luck this year. Last year's incarnation counted 222 co-sponsors--more than a majority of the House--but died before going to a floor vote.

Others voiced doubts that there's enough time to effect major changes in the voting system before the next federal elections. But there are arguably less dramatic ways to make e-voting more secure in the meantime, suggested Brit Williams, an emeritus computer science professor at Kennesaw State University who has been evaluating electronic voting systems in Georgia since the late 1980s.

"We've got to really concentrate on the things that we can control," he said, "that is, training people, and avoiding poor ballot formats."

See more CNET content tagged:
Rush Holt, e-voting, ballot, election, politician

5 comments

Join the conversation!
Add your comment
The Holt Bill Misleads with term paper "ballots"
While nearly everybody wants something the public can see, feel and verify as the ballot in the election, in order to avoid invisible secret vote counting on electronic machines resulting in the worst kind of "faith-based elections", the Holt bill's much hyped paper "ballots" aren't really ballots.

They don't get counted on the first count, like real ballots do, the electronic ballots get counted first under the fine print of holt.

Second, even though the sign Holt requires says that the paper ballots count for "All Recounts and Audits" this too is not true. If your state triggers an automatic recount, there are NO holt audits. But if that automatic recount is a machine recount --- the touch screens are just asked to print out the same results slip a second time --- not a meaningful recount or audit at all, and those Holt paper ballots are totally useless.

This happens in close races (no audits) when it matters the most! A truly poor drafted bill.

Holt also adds unfunded mandates, federalizes elections and puts the present administration in charge of elections -- something the Founders would have abhorred since it allows a President or executive branch to control all of the elections during its term, which is one recipe for abuse of power, which the Framers called tyranny.

EAch and every Holt provision requires detailed study by experts including lawyers, statisticians and elections experts in order to deem its true effects. Reading a press release and its hype will get us NOWHERE in terms of a true understanding of the true effects of the bill on our elections. Also missing is that much more work is needed on public oversight and restoring that so that citizens can provide the checks and balances in elections that the government can't -- because it gets its money and power from elections.

We the People are the boss in elections, we are being asked for the consent of the governed. The roles are reversed then, and Congress should, if they truly are servants of the people, falling all over themselves to create public oversight and to creat public rights in elections. Instead its more about facilitating the vendors and creating more sales opportunities for them with yet more techno-requirements that are buried in the bill.
Posted by PR Finn (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Holt Bill imperfect
I tend to agree with your assessment PR. The bill is imperfect, better than what we've got, but why not go for the whole enchilada and ban the DREs all together?

That's the whole problem right there, voters need actual ballots to mark, not a machine generated register tape. If the language were amended to reflect the ban, I could support it, even with the other flaws.
Posted by PDA Laura (1 comment )
Link Flag
One sec
Large parts of your argument are based on the way things happen now, not the way they are intending them happen, once paper ballots are available. Or at least that is how it comes across.
Posted by bemenaker (438 comments )
Link Flag
There will always be security compromises
With paper ballots, there is the risk of stuffing the ballot box. With electronic voting, that problem doesn't go away, it just shifts to another area. If the ballot machines hook up to the internet or even a government intranet, they can be hacked. If it is not connected, the hard drives or memory sticks with the votes on them could be swapped.

As much as I dislike "big government," it seems redundancy might be useful here: the more layers there are to voting, the less likely they are to be compromised.

My biggest two problems with this bill is if it becomes an unfunded mandate, it could both put undue strain on state and local governments as well as take away control from those same governments on how voting is conducted.
Posted by jskrenes (215 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Paper trail makes them useless ...
Paper trail ? what a crazy idea !
I mean, the whole point of having E-Voting systems is that the vendor can skew the result toward the politician who buy them. If there is a paper trail, why on earth would any politician buy those useless pieces of junk ? Paper trail works best without those machines, it's called paper ballots and when properly done, it's still the best way to vote (from a citizen's point of vue)
Posted by My-Self (242 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot

Discussions

Shared

RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.