E-voting faces new scrutiny

news analysis General Accounting Office inquiry adds to postelection angst, but the results will likely affect only future contests.

news analysisA newly announced federal investigation of the November election will bring fresh scrutiny on the performance of e-voting machines, but election experts said they believe any impact will be limited to future political contests.

On Tuesday, five Democratic representatives said the Government Accountability Office agreed to their request to review complaints that election machine technology and procedural issues had prevented some votes from being counted in the recently completed presidential election.


What's new:
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, agreed to look into anomalies in the November election.

Bottom line:
Experts do not expect an inquiry to result in a dramatic challenge of the November election results, but it could lead to important changes in ongoing reforms of the election process.

More stories on e-voting

Though most observers have concluded that election technology performed reasonably well Nov. 2, a variety of anomalies have cropped up, fueling calls for a deeper review of complaints from voters and election watchdog groups over possible mistakes.

"On its own authority, the GAO will examine the security and accuracy of voting technologies, the distribution and allocation of voting machines, and the counting of provisional ballots," the five members of the House of Representatives said in statement Tuesday. "We are hopeful that GAO's nonpartisan and expert analysis will get to the bottom of the flaws uncovered in the 2004 election."

The pending GAO inquiry offers the latest sign that the postelection healing called for by politicians has yet to emerge for critics of e-voting machines.

Experts said they do not expect an investigation to result in a dramatic challenge of the November election results. But it could lead to important changes in ongoing reforms of the election process sparked by the famous "hanging chad" ballot problems in Florida during 2000's closely fought presidential race.

Congress in 2002 passed the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, to help states fund an overhaul of antiquated voting systems with new e-voting machines. But those attempts have themselves sparked heated criticism over often poorly planned changes that some believe offer citizens less secure and reliable voting procedures than they had before.

Calls for reforms
Criticism has focused on the lack of national voting machine standards and the failure of some voting districts to require that e-voting machines produce a paper ballot receipt that could be used in the case of an audit.

"The $64,000 question is whether or not the GAO finds enough problems in the 2004 election results to spur Congress to help the Help America Vote Act," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan voting-information site. "Election reform is driven by either consensus or crisis, and in the absence of either, reform will move slowly, if at all, in the next Congress...There is some concern that if there are only a number of smaller problems, they might just slip under Congress' radar."

One problem voters faced in the November elections was that after choosing one presidential candidate, they were presented with confirmations that they had voted for the opposing candidate, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and VerifiedVoting.org said in a release earlier this month. The Verified Voting Foundation is an e-voting critic that has called for independent technical experts to monitor and test voting machines and results, among other things. The groups added that another common error was that machines crashed and rebooted without evidence of whether the votes were counted.

The groups sent letters to voting officials in eight counties with the worst problems urging them to allow for independent machine tests. The counties included Broward and Palm Beach in Florida, Mahoning and Franklin in Ohio, Mercer and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Harris in Texas, and Bernalillo in New Mexico.

Calls for increased scrutiny of e-voting systems are heating up as the technology is rapidly taking root in election districts across the country. Some 50 million voters used electronic ballot machines

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