Does e-voting need paper trails?

Fears of glitches and foul play on computerized voting machines have prompted widespread calls for paper receipts.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
8 min read
After reports of a rocky primary election this year, Maryland's Republican governor turned heads even outside the Old Line State when he called for a return to all-paper ballots.

"When in doubt, go paper, go low-tech," said Gov. Robert Ehrlich, according to various press reports, one week after polls closed in mid-September.

His 11th-hour suggestion has garnered little support so far from elections administrators. Come Nov. 7, Maryland and 16 other states are expected to forge ahead with a certain breed of computerized machine that does not include what amounts to a receipt, or a voter-verified paper audit trail, according to research compiled by the nonprofit Election Reform Information Project.

All told, 37 states and 39 percent of the voting population are expected to use voting equipment known as a direct-recording electronic (DRE) system, either with or without a paper trail, according to the advocacy group Common Cause, which describes itself as a proponent of "open and accountable" government.

With endorsements for the paper-trail technique piled on by influential election reform advocates and even an ever-skeptical crowd of computer science academics, what's the hold-up?

The answer lies in a complex mix of politics, money and available options on the market, election office representatives and their critics say.

"The officials have spent gazillions of dollars (largely reimbursed by the federal government under the Help America Vote Act) to buy what they have now," said Eugene Spafford, a computer science professor and director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University. "Any additions will need to come out of local budgets, so they are looking for ways to avoid incurring that expense. They can't return or throw out the existing machines without huge expense, and modification won't be cheap, either."

That was the case made by Maryland's top election administrator and the legislature's Democratic leaders. With Ehrlich's suggestion arriving less than two months before the election, some called it crazy to strand $106 million worth of electronic voting equipment.

No massive incidents of fraud have been reported yet involving DRE machines, which were designed to tabulate votes internally, often without producing a paper record. They have nonetheless created ongoing concern among voter transparency advocates and computer scientists because of their perceived susceptibility to hacking and general malfunctioning. And those worries are not entirely theoretical: A recent report by Common Cause (click for PDF) cited seven reported occasions since 2002 in which votes were mysteriously added or subtracted in states like Florida, Texas and North Carolina--and without paper records to shed light on the anomalies.

Image: Voting map

Many computer scientists remain convinced that a paper receipt is the single most effective safeguard against computer glitches--or something more malicious. Princeton University computer science Professor Ed Felten, who recently co-authored a report on vulnerabilities in a DRE system expected to be used in 357 counties this year, said there are two reasons for paper receipts: They give voters an inspectable record of their intent that can "no longer be modified by any software," and it's an important back-up for those doing recounts or audits.

"Paper and electronic records have different failure modes, so it will require separate accidents or separate security attacks to modify or destroy them both," Felten said.

But not all states are convinced there's a real problem. "Those studies, the ones that we've looked at here so far, mostly rely on unimpeded access to the system," said Rosanna Bencoach, policy manager for the Virginia State Board of Elections. "They totally ignore the security that is normally involved in these systems and that both (political) parties legally can have their representatives present...to watch everything that happens during the day and to watch the count that night."

Virginia's legislature was among a dozen state houses that also considered, but did not enact, its own paper trail requirement this year, according to the advocacy group Verified Voting, which lobbies for such rules. But those proposals, which called for a pilot program for paper trail technology, ultimately stalled in part because of budget considerations, Bencoach said.

"First there's the financial impact of doing the pilot, and then there's the financial impact of adding it to all these machines they just bought in the last few years, and no federal money to help with this add-on," Bencoach said.

Billions of federal dollars and a congressional mandate under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) have already pushed states to undertake what is considered to be the largest overhaul of voting equipment in U.S. history.

The four-year-old law, which grew in part out of the hanging-chad debacle of the 2000 presidential elections, required states to shift to electronic voting systems, but it made no mention of paper-based audit trails--nor did it set aside extra money for them. Several members of Congress have offered attempts at amending the law to include such requirements, and one committee held a hearing on the topic last month. But those lawmaking efforts did not make it to a vote in this session.

That hasn't stopped 27 states from passing their own legislation requiring paper records, although not all of them have rolled out the systems yet.

New York, for example, has a law on the books requiring any electronic voting machines to be outfitted with paper trails by Sept. 1, 2007, but it has opted not to use any DRE machines yet in the state, said Robert Brehm, a spokesman for the state board of elections.

The state didn't want to launch new systems only to find they would be outdated, particularly since final federal guidelines weren't even complete until January 2006. So at the moment, "we are in the process of testing systems," Brehm said. Most of New York's counties still rely on lever-based voting machines and have put into place interim fixes required by HAVA for voters with disabilities.

California, which passed its paper trail requirement in late 2004, plans to use DRE machines equipped with paper audit trails in 23 of its 58 counties this year (the remaining counties will use another form of electronic voting system known as an optical scan). Nghia Nguyen Demovic, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, said her boss believes in the approach for a simple reason: He "wants to assure Californians that the vote cast will be the vote counted."

In Ohio, which in 2004 became the third state to enact such a law, about half of the state's 88 counties use DRE machines, all of which have paper trails, said James Lee, a spokesman for Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell. He said he couldn't speak for states offering fiscal woes as barriers to implementing paper trails, but said his state "negotiated best-in-the-nation pricing for our voting equipment, so there was really no additional expense to Ohio for equipping (machines with) voter-verified paper audit trails."

Quality at risk?
Some charge that Ohio officials may have sacrificed quality by launching a paper trail system so quickly. In a study commissioned earlier this year by election officials in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, a nonprofit research firm called the Election Science Institute found that nearly 10 percent of the paper print-outs made by those machines were "compromised in some way"--including paper mangled by errant printers, rolls of votes cast that mysteriously went missing. If they had been part of a recount, in which paper ballots are considered official record, they would have been uncountable, said Steven Hertzberg, the project's director.

"The issue really here is, we got into this mess because we just didn't do it right, we haven't done any of this right," Hertzberg said. "We went out and we deployed a new system across the country all at once, we didn't go through and do any pilot testing like you would normally do in commercial industry."

Hertzberg suggested the debate should not be so focused on whether states implement voter-verified paper audit trails. Rather, governments should get creative with handing out grants and giving companies opportunities to come up with creative solutions for systems that meet certain widely agreed-upon goals: giving voters a chance to verify that their picks have been registered accurately, keeping costs down, and allowing for audits later.

Some states that have not yet adopted the practice cited dissatisfaction with current technological options as a reason for not rolling out paper trail technology.

"We haven't found one that we feel comfortable certifying," said Ashley Burton, a spokeswoman for the Texas secretary of state. "We're afraid people could actually match up who voted what way, so we don't want to allow for that."

Burton, who was quick to say the office was not opposed to the practice, was referring to a concern raised by some watchdogs that those reviewing rolls of paper records could use voter sign-in sheets to match up voter names to their recorded voting activity.

"We don't want anyone to be able to track which voter casts which ballot," said Cathy Ennis, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania's elections division, which has also stopped short of requiring a paper trail.

Because of those and other concerns, a number of other states have decided to meet their federal obligations, in whole or in part, by using a type of electronic voting system considered to be at a lower risk for instances of fraud and malfunctioning. Known as an optical scan, it requires voters to mark their choices on a paper ballot much in the way they would mark answers on a standardized test. The voter has a chance to check over choices before feeding the ballot to a separate machine, which records the results.

The technology is appealing because it saves election officials the trouble of hand-counting, but "you don't have to worry about a computer being misprogrammed, because if it prints the wrong ballot, you don't submit it," said Purdue's Spafford, who also serves as public policy chairman for the Association for Computing Machinery, a prominent educational and scientific computing society.

Election officials in states that have not yet adopted voter-verified paper trails have a singular message: Voter-verified paper trails are hardly a cure-all.

Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator for the Maryland State Board of Elections, said he had no doubt that his state's testing and security procedures were already strong enough to sidestep concerns raised by the governor. Maryland's legislature ultimately failed to pass paper trail regulations in this session, so the state plans to go ahead with paperless DRE systems as planned on Nov. 7, he added.

"How successful will voters be actually comparing what's shown on a screen to a slip of paper at the end of their ballots, and how often will they really use it?" he asked. "Does it really provide a meaningful security check on the system, or is it just giving people some comfort?"