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Another day, another e-voting critique

Paper trails alone aren't enough--states also need to step up their post-election checks on their systems, argue researchers at two prominent law schools.

Much of the debate surrounding the nation's required shift to electronic voting systems has boiled down to one major question: to paper trail, or not to paper trail?

But those dead-tree representations of a voter's intent do little good unless state election officials actually scrutinize a sampling of them after the election, know what they're looking for, and know what to do next, argues a new report (warning: 90-page PDF ahead) released Wednesday by researchers at two prominent law schools.

And most of them don't, according to the report's authors, who represent New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice and the University of California at Berkeley's Samuelson Law, Technology and Policy Clinic.

Of the 38 states that currently use or require voter-verifiable paper records in all of their precincts, 23 of them do not require audits after each election. Not one of the states that actually requires and conducts the post-contest checks, which typically involve a tiny percentage of the ballots, has developed any clear way to detect "targeted software-based attacks, non-systemic programming errors, and software bugs," the report said.

The authors go on to make a number of recommendations, including requiring auditors to keep more detailed records of occurrences like overvotes, undervotes, blank votes and spoiled ballots, which they argue could help flag problems in ballot design or bugs in machines. They propose a number of models for how to go about doing that. (An investigation is still under way in Sarasota County, Fla., where more than 18,000 undervotes were recorded in the congressional race there last November. Critics have attempted to blame the irregularities on the paperless electronic voting machines used there.)

The paper appears to be designed in part to guide members of Congress who have been continuing to push for mandatory paper trails and nationwide audit requirements. It emerged just days after University of California computer scientists revealed they were able to tamper with electronic voting systems made by three major manufacturers. Those companies--Diebold Election Systems, Sequoia Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic--have since taken issue with the study, arguing the scenarios presented were implausible and the test methods flawed.