Senators: No need for paper e-voting trails, 'electronic' ones are OK

Computer scientists have advocated paper trails as a check on malice or programming errors, but a Senate bill instead will provide the option of a second "electronic" record as well.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read

Computer scientists have pressed for e-voting paper trails for years, in peer reports and in testimony on Capitol Hill. Now it looks like Congress is poised to ignore this idea: forthcoming legislation will say that a backup "electronic" record is OK too.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who lead a Senate committee charged with overseeing election law, said they plan to introduce a bill in the next few weeks that would require voters casting ballots on touch-screen or so-called "direct recording electronic" machines to have the ability to verify their selections through "an independent paper, electronic, audio, video, or pictorial record." That's according to a press release that came out Thursday--a copy of the bill's text is not yet available because it's still being drafted, a Feinstein aide said.

Groups like the Association for Computing Machinery have long advocated for use of "hybrid" systems containing both electronic and paper components, which are designed to enable independent audits and provide a backup record in the event of buggy or hacked voting machine software. Princeton University computer science professor Edward Felten, an ACM advisory committee member who studies e-voting security, said Friday that he couldn't comment on the new bill without seeing more details.

The bill's approach seems to indicate that the senators feel some sympathy toward arguments that paper trails aren't the only option for independently verifying a voter's pick and that other innovative alternatives could emerge down the line. Michael Shamos, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and consultant to the Pennsylvania government, is one such skeptic who has argued that paper ballots are susceptible to problems and rigging of their own.

The decision may also be a nod to state and local election officials who have complained about the costs associated with outfitting their machines with paper trails.

The new voting machine requirements would take effect on January 1, 2012, unless a state requested a waiver, which, if granted, would give it until the beginning of 2014.

That new deadline represents yet another delay in getting new federal electronic voting machine rules off the ground. Last year, Feinstein introduced a bill that would have required states to scrap paperless voting machines by this year's presidential election, but at a hearing last summer, she said she'd decided 2010 would be a safer bet, giving voting reform advocates and election officials more time to reach a compromise.

In addition to the new voting machine obligations, the bill would require states to do public audits of their election results. It would also establish certain security requirements for the voting machines and their software and would set up a research grant program designed to encourage development and testing of new technologies for verifying votes.

Feinstein said in a statement that the bill is necessary because "we now have a patchwork of voting systems throughout the country, including five states that use electronic voting systems but have no independent records to help ensure the accuracy and reliability of the vote, and eleven others in which large sections of their states use electronic systems that have no such independent records."

Meanwhile, 30 states already have legislation on their books requiring use of paper ballots in some fashion, according to Verified Voting, a group that advocates for use of paper trails. But other state officials have balked at the potential costs of upgrading their systems, particularly since some subscribe to the belief that providing paper trails isn't a panacea to ballot-tampering, anyway.