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Politicians call for e-voting paper trails by '08 election

Troubled by irregularities, they say it's urgent to enact federal laws requiring voter-verifiable records of ballots cast.

WASHINGTON--A push is under way by congressional Democrats to enact legislation that would require paper trails to accompany all electronic voting machines in time for the 2008 presidential election.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that she expects to introduce a bill within the next week that would revive earlier calls for such a mandate.

"I don't believe we can afford to wait and not require a voter-verified paper record of each voter's vote," Feinstein said at the first hearing here of the new session convened by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, of which she is chairman.

Details on Feinstein's proposal were still being finalized, but aides said it will likely resemble a House of Representatives bill, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), that was reintroduced on Tuesday and has received endorsements from voter advocacy groups and some computer scientists.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he is also drafting a bill that would require paper verification in elections and allow review of the software on e-voting machines when the outcome of a race is in dispute.

"Sometimes those machines may not do what we tell them to do, and that's where we have to have a process by which we can verify whether or not that machine malfunctioned," he told the committee.

The need for new action is acute, the politicians said, because they fear a reprise of what occurred during last year's congressional election in Sarasota County, Fla. When it was reported that more than 18,000 of the county's ballots registered no choice in the House race, watchdogs suggested buggy paperless electronic machines may have been to blame for the perceived irregularities. In the end, Republican Vern Buchanan was certified as the winner of the House race with a 369-vote edge over Democrat Christine Jennings, but litigation is pending.

According to the advocacy group Verified Voting, 27 states already have laws on their books requiring a voter-verified paper trail of some sort, though not all of the requirements have been implemented yet, and not all require subsequent audits. Last week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, proclaimed that every county should make use of paper ballots by 2008. Politicians said they want to expand such requirements across the nation.

"If things stand where they are now, no one will know whom the voters intended to represent them in the House," said Holt, who spoke about his bill at Wednesday's hearing.

Called the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, Holt's 47-page measure would require all voting machines to employ a paper ballot or receipt that would allow voters to review their selections and make changes before their final choices were recorded. A certain percentage of voting precincts in each congressional district would be required to perform regular random audits based on those paper ballots after an election.

The bill also aims to make the machines more hacker- and bug-proof. For instance, it would ban any wireless technology in voting machines and prohibit connecting them to the Internet.

It would also require state elections officials to hand over to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a federal agency charged with overseeing the shift to electronic voting machines, all of the source code and other ballot programming files associated with the machines they certify. In a move that could prove controversial, the EAC under the bill would have to make that information available "for inspection promptly upon request to any person." (The judge presiding in the Sarasota case already ruled that Jennings, the losing candidate, had no right to look at the source code, arguing it was more important to protect the voting machine company's trade secrets.)

Representing a voter's intent

Another idea that could prove contentious is any requirement that paper ballots serve as the "official" representation of a voter's intent in the event of a recount. Some states, such as California, already have such requirements in place. But past and present elections officials cautioned the senators against putting too much stock in the paper trail process.

"If a voting machine paper trail is declared to be the official ballot, we will in fact disenfranchise voters whose ballots were cast when the paper jammed, the printer ran out of toner, or (the receipt) failed to print," said Connie Schmidt, a former Kansas election commissioner.

Holt's bill says the paper receipts would serve as the "true and correct" record during any audits or recounts. It does, however, also contain an exception that would permit elections officials to rely on electronic ballots if there is "clear and convincing" evidence that the paper records have been compromised. It was unclear what path the Senate bills would take, but Feinstein indicated she was mindful of potential paper-related glitches.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the Rules Committee's co-chairman, said he was skeptical that technological change alone could solve problems reported by precincts. He suggested electronic ballot designs, perhaps more than the inner workings of the machines, could affect election outcomes by confusing voters--including the senator himself when he ventured to the polls last year.

It's also important to pay attention to "human factors," Bennett said, because "we do have a long history of vote fraud and rigging elections that predates any discussion of electronic voting."

Holt's proposal currently enjoys sponsorship from 174 politicians, 17 of whom are Republicans. With a Democrat-controlled House, he may have more luck this year. Last year's incarnation counted 222 co-sponsors--more than a majority of the House--but died before going to a floor vote.

Others voiced doubts that there's enough time to effect major changes in the voting system before the next federal elections. But there are arguably less dramatic ways to make e-voting more secure in the meantime, suggested Brit Williams, an emeritus computer science professor at Kennesaw State University who has been evaluating electronic voting systems in Georgia since the late 1980s.

"We've got to really concentrate on the things that we can control," he said, "that is, training people, and avoiding poor ballot formats."