John Wildermuth, Chronicle Political Writer
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
California will require all electronic voting machines to produce a printed record of votes in the June election, but there are still concerns that the expensive overhaul may cause more problems than it solves.
The Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank, has called the paper trail requirement one of the state's top 10 policy blunders of 2005. The new law "may force California to relive the mistakes of America's punch-card voting past,'' the group said, and will make voting "increasingly difficult and negate the original virtues of e-voting: speed, cost-savings and efficiency.''
"We're moving in the wrong direction,'' said Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies for the institute. "The whole point of e-voting is to move away from paper.''
In a briefing paper written last year, Arrison and Vince Vasquez, a fellow at the institute, argued that a system of printouts that allows voters to verify their choices and election officials to do a physical recount to confirm the results is not the perfect solution its supporters proclaim.
"Passing sweeping laws ... to require voter-verified paper trails for touch-screen machines, though well-intentioned, could bankrupt cash-strapped counties and may erode the efficiency of electronic voting management,'' they said in the paper.
Arrison and the institute are swimming against the tide. Growing concerns about the vulnerability of the complex electronic voting systems to hacking, electronic glitches and simple errors by local election officials have persuaded an increasing number of states to require paper backups for election results.
In California, support for a paper voting trail was one of the few recent bipartisan efforts in the Legislature. In 2004, SB1438, which required electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail in the coming June primary, passed the Assembly on a 73-t0-0 vote.
"Without a paper trail, you don't have hard copy to show voter intent,'' said Pamela Smith, national coordinator of VerifiedVoting.org, a group concerned about electronic-voting problems. "Instead, you have electronic copy, which may or may not reflect voter intent.''
Without a paper printout, election officials are at the mercy of the electronic voting system, with little or no recourse if something goes wrong, Smith said.
Horror stories abound, gleefully repeated by foes of the electronic systems and the companies that sell them.
In November 2004, for example, more than 4,500 votes disappeared forever in Carteret County, N.C., when an electronic storage unit was overloaded with ballot information. Although officials with the voting machine company said the unit could store 10,500 electronic ballots, it actually could hold only 3,005.
While the machine accepted an additional 4,530 electronic ballots, it didn't store any of the information. With a paper backup system, election officials could retrieve the missing votes by hand-counting those additional ballots, Smith said. Without it, those votes disappeared into the ether.
"Will that happen again? Probably not,'' she said. "But it's inevitable that some new glitch will come up.''
Glitches are the least of the potential problems with electronic voting, say some advocates of paper backup systems. Each voting machine company uses its own proprietary software to record and count the electronic votes, then has its own technicians to deal with any problems with the electronic systems.
"We've created a system where the oversight of elections is by private companies, and that's not acceptable in a democracy,'' said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. Without a paper verification system, "you're at the mercy of the vendor to tell you who won and who lost.''
Despite concerns about the power of the voting machine manufacturers, there's been no evidence that an electronic voting machine was ever hacked or election results purposely changed.
"These same people worried about electronic voting machines are perfectly fine using an ATM machine or being in an airplane that uses computers for everything,'' Arrison said. "Experts know how (voting machines) can be hacked, but they also know it's not as dire as it's made out to be.''
The paper backup systems come with problems of their own, Arrison said. In a special test of electronic voting machines in Stockton in July, officials from the California secretary of state's office ran 10,000 ballots through 96 printer-equipped machines from Diebold Election Systems. The results weren't encouraging.
More than 20 percent of the machines had problems, including 10 with paper jams or other printer problems. The results convinced Secretary of State Bruce McPherson to deny certification of the voting system.
While McPherson has been a longtime supporter of paper verification, he has listened to concerns about the program and is keeping a close watch on the performance of the printing systems, said Jennifer Kerns, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state.
"The secretary has a duty to uphold the law that requires a paper trail for voting and helps counties enforce that requirement,'' she said. "But he's heard media reports on both sides of the issue. ... He's in the position of being the referee.''
E-mail John Wildermuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.