July 25, 2007 11:36 AM PDT

Senators to abandon '08 e-voting paper trail mandate

WASHINGTON--Democratic senators on Wednesday made another push for banning electronic voting machines that lack paper trails, but they've backed away from doing so in time for next year's presidential election.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chief sponsor of a contentious bill called the Ballot Integrity Act that proposes such changes, said she fears requiring all states to employ so-called voter-verified paper records in their systems, with some primaries only six months away, "could be an invitation to chaos." Earlier this year, she called for enacting such changes by 2008.

"Pushing the date back to the 2010 elections will give us more time to reach a bipartisan consensus with voting reform advocates and local and state officials to enact a new law that provides for increased accuracy and accountability at the polls without raising the specter of creating major new errors," she said at the start of a hearing here in the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which she leads.

After listening to a rash of concerns about the bill's approach at Wednesday's hearing, Feinstein said it may be necessary to move any proposed deadline for a paper trail mandate "out a little farther."

Introduced just before the Memorial Day recess, Feinstein's bill is co-sponsored by 10 Democrats--including presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd--and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders. Clinton made a brief appearance on Wednesday to make a pitch for "21st century reforms" to the nation's voting system. In her view, that action includes requiring the use of voter-verified paper records that would serve as the official ballot of record, banning undisclosed e-voting software source code, and prohibiting wireless communications devices in voting systems. (A separate bill called the Count Every Vote Act, which she proposed earlier this year, also includes such steps.)

Election watchdog groups and prominent computer scientists have long argued that paper ballots are one of the surest ways for voters to verify their intent was recorded, especially amid evidence that touch-screen machines are vulnerable to security flaws and glitches. But election officials and some voting machine reviewers have argued paperless machines are not as flawed as their critics claim and that replacing them would be unduly time-consuming and expensive.

Feinstein's proposal would, among other things, impose an immediate halt to the purchase of direct-recording electronic voting systems that don't spit out paper records, set aside $600 million for states and localities to replace or retrofit paperless machines as needed, and allow voting machine software to be inspected by state and federal election authorities. She emphasized Wednesday that it is "not necessarily a finished product."

On target, but missing the bull's-eye
In some ways, the Senate effort resembles a bill approved by a House of Representatives panel in May. Election officials have criticized that bill as setting forth unrealistic requirements, insufficient funding and impossible timetables--including implementation, with some exceptions, by next year's elections. But advocacy groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, say it is an important step toward creating more open, transparent elections.

At Wednesday's hearing, a panel of state and local officials and a computer scientist with decades of experience evaluating voting machines told the committee that the Senate bill is slightly preferable to the House version but is still unsupportable for a number of reasons.

The bill "is aimed at the right target, but it needs to be loaded with the right ammunition," said George Gilbert, director of the Guilford County Board of Elections in North Carolina. Right now, the "ammunition" is a paper voting record and manual tabulation, but "the fact that the two most celebrated recent attempts to manually count ballots have dealt severe blows to public confidence should raise red flags for this committee," he argued, referring to the infamous Florida presidential recount in 2000 and a close governor's race in Washington state in 2004.

Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz and other panelists claimed the technology required by the current draft--in particular, paper records for touch-screen voting machines that are durable, privacy-protecting and accessible to the disabled--is not even commercially available yet. (Feinstein, for her part, denied that her bill requires "technology that doesn't exist.")

Michael Shamos, a longtime Carnegie Mellon computer science professor who currently examines voting systems in Pennsylvania, urged the politicians to reject the assumption that paper records are more secure than electronic ones. For one thing, one in five direct recording electronic machines outfitted with printers fails on election day--about double the rate of glitches with paperless machines, he said.

"There has to be a better way, and indeed there is," he argued. "However, if the bill is enacted in its present form, the better way will never reach the market because the requirement of a paper trail forecloses any possibility of continued research and development on methods of voter verification."

For instance, an innovative paperless approach is under development and was recently tested at Auburn University, Shamos said. The system would rely on a "mechanical witness," a completely independent device in the voting booth that would keep track of the voter's selections and deselections for use in subsequent audits and present the voter's selection on a separate screen for verification and changes.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah)--who, along with several other Republicans, has been skeptical of the Feinstein bill--said he liked that idea, although he added, "it also sounds very expensive."

Representatives from Verified Voting and the Association for Computing Machinery, two organizations that have advocated for years for physical paper records and subsequent audits of electronic voting machines, did not participate in Wednesday's hearing and told CNET News.com afterward that they had not yet taken a stance on the bill. ACM computer scientists did, however, send a letter to Feinstein on Tuesday saying they believe a number of their policy principles are "embodied" in her proposal.

To be sure, a number of states have already taken the sort of action that Feinstein, her allies and voter rights advocates support. Verified Voting notes that 30 states have already enacted legislation or regulations requiring paper ballots, although not all of those policies have taken effect yet.

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13 comments

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Are they kidding?
Yes having a complete view of choices you selected and selecting PRINT.

Thats waaaaaayyy too complicated.

What they are planning to steal yet another election?!
Posted by jabberwolf (858 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No they have another motive...
... by not requiring the paper trail they'll be able to make the claim that the election was stolen again. It's a lie they seem to love repeating despite the fact that it's historically and traditionally been the Democrats who cheat and steal the elections. It's their same strategy they've been using for the last 30 years, do something evil themselves and accuse the Republicans of the same.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Link Flag
WTF?
"The fact that the two most celebrated recent attempts to manually count ballots have dealt severe blows to public confidence should raise red flags for this committee"

Am I missing something? He seems to be arguing that since manual recounts are difficult, we should make them impossible. And this will increase public confidence in the system?
Posted by alflanagan (115 comments )
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Just add a Printer!
Easy!
Posted by kyle172 (65 comments )
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Did you *read* the article???
Let me quote it for you

"For one thing, one in five direct recording electronic machines outfitted with printers fails on election day--about double the rate of glitches with paperless machines, he said."
Posted by insanegeek (17 comments )
Link Flag
New Technology??
"Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz and other panelists claimed the technology required by the current draft--in particular, paper records for touch-screen voting machines that are durable, privacy-protecting and accessible to the disabled--is not even commercially available yet."

Does this mean I can get a patent for a device which transfers text from a computer screen onto a piece of paper that can then be verified by the voter?
Posted by Ushiikun (30 comments )
Reply Link Flag
How about we ban e-voting machines?
I'm not saying indefinately, just until they make a system that ensures that what voters say get heard where there is no doubt. Having a piece of paper that prints out after you vote that both people and machines can read should already be used. Schools have been using such machines for years now, so why haven't we implemented those for voting?
Posted by aka_tripleB (2211 comments )
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Voting Joke
The crooks are at it again, they could start changes now if they wanted to and if the thieves in power didn't screw up the first time it would not be soooo expensive to fix it now. Take it out of their salaries not ours.
Posted by wnew813 (5 comments )
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The true value of voting: bamboozle the masses
Let's be honest here. By next year's election, we will have had over 7 years to fix the mechanisms, three years longer than it took to win WWII. If voting were really important, we would have fixed it by now. Instead, the whole "Help America Vote Act" business has been a sham and a swindle, keeping us more confused and agitated, siphoning more taxpayer dollars into the pockets of politically well-placed contractors and bureaucrats, and serving as a political football that politicians on both sides use to their advantage in rousing the rabble.

It is hard not to conclude that the only purpose of voting is theatrical: We are to get caught up in the process of citizenship, and fool ourselves into thinking that the results reported to us represent "the public will," so we'll all step into line and get with whatever program the powers-that-be wish to foist upon us.

We need an open source method of secure and verifiable electronic voting that is compatible with off-the-shelf computer hardware -- even one's own personal computer, PDA or cell phone. Through cryptography, ballots can be anonymized such that nobody can see how you personally voted, but you personally can verify that your vote was accurately registered. They can also be encoded so that any intermediate tampering or natural damage to the records can at least be detected, if not repaired. The millions of anonymized ballots can be posted to the internet, so that EVERYONE who wishes to can recount and verify the results of the election. Total transparency in the source code, hardware employed, ballot format, posted results, and other aspects of the system will guarantee its integrity, through the efforts of the thousands -- maybe millions -- of people who will independently verify the voting mechanisms from start to finish, to satisfy official requirements or simply for their own peace of mind.

Such a system is well within our capability to specify and implement. But, as this news story illustrates, it seems well beyond the public will, or at least the will of those who are ostensibly pledged to "serve" the public.

"Serve the public," yeah. Serve 'em up on a PLATTER!
Posted by James Anderson Merritt (251 comments )
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Print paper ballots on demand
Scrap the e-voting machines, give 'em to the schools to learn hacking. Install printers in each polling place to print ballots on demand - but with the embeded coding used secretly on modern color lasers to authenticate the ballot - not the voter. Then empanel and pay 12 voters from each voting place as a jury to count the votes. Unfortunately, because of deliberate legislative footdragging, it may not be possible to produce all the printers needed for each precinct in each state. But it could have been done. So expect more scrappy pseudo elections.
Posted by dfrank_robinson (4 comments )
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Who's Peddling Paper?
The concept that paper ballots can be printed at the polls is technologically flawed and potentially the most corrupting aspect of voting.

First, paper ballots (in California) must be printed of specified stock, under controlled conditions. To meet the requirements of optical scanning equipment, the printed ballot must meet exacting specifications.

Second, either through mistakes, foolishness, or nefarious intent, printed paper ballots at the polls will frustrate required audits.

As the registrar of a good sized California County (Contra Costa) I have a centralized ballot on demand printer, housed in a locked cage in a secured room. This printer is slow. No printer exists that is adequate for printing ballots at the polls and no safeguard I can think of would not yield serious flaws in any post election audit.
Posted by stephen weir (1 comment )
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Senators to abandon paper trail
"Who you vote for determines nothing. Who counts the votes determines everthing." Uncle Joe Stalin.--History doesn't repeat itself,but it does rhyme"--Mark Twain
Posted by robertsgt40 (40 comments )
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