Congress Plans to Address Electronic Voting

The debate over electronic voting machines is heating up. A draft government report concludes that paperless touchscreen voting is not secure. And questions continue over 18,000 ballots cast in Sarasota County, Fla. This has boosted efforts in Congress to require paper backups on electronic voting equipment, but some experts think that will only further complicate elections.

Sarasota election workers spent hours today at a warehouse testing five of the county's touch screen voting machines. They're trying to figure out why thousands of ballots showed no votes for a congressional race in the midterm elections.

Observers outside the room listened through speakers as the workers were instructed on how to re-enact the November vote, in an effort to see if the machines might be at fault. An answer isn't expected before next week. But Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) thinks no one will ever know.

"The problem cannot be resolved now without a paper trail," he says. He claims there's no way to verify the electronic results without some kind of paper backup to compare results. His argument has been bolstered by a draft report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The agency is helping to develop federal guidelines for voting equipment, although it's not clear the NIST findings will be adopted. Holt says something has to be done soon, even if, on the surface, appears that the midterm elections went relatively well.

"For all we know, there are other examples maybe dozens it could be...where maybe 18,000 votes are not missing, but maybe 400 votes or 1,000 votes are missing," says Holt.

The congressman already has more than half of his House colleagues as cosponsors for his bill to require paper backups on electronic voting machines. He expects quick action next year.

In the Senate, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce a similar bill in January. And aides say she'll hold aggressive hearings on the issue as the new chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.

"The most important thing for Congress is to take a deep breath," says Dan Tokaji, an election-law expert at Ohio State University. He worries that momentum is building for something that could prove to be a mistake.

"Passing paper trails at this stage, based on what we know right now is really fool's gold. It may provide an initial sense of confidence. But that confidence won't be long-lasting unless we resolve some deeper issues."

Issues such as adequate poll worker training and better voter access. Tokaji notes that there's strong evidence that the problem in Sarasota wasn't due to the machines. Researchers from Dartmouth and UCLA concluded last week that many of the county's voters probably overlooked the race because of poor ballot design.

In addition, lots of election officials complain that paper audit trails cause more problems than they solve. Georgia Secretary of State Kathy Cox spoke at a forum this week in Washington.

"If the paper jams and the voter doesn't know what to look for, the election poll worker may not understand there's a jam," Cox said. "When you go to count your paper component, it's not going to match your electronic component because there was a jam. So the paper is not a panacea."

In fact, a study in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, found that 10 percent of paper ballots attached to its touchscreen machines were blank, ripped or otherwise uncountable. That's causing local jurisdictions to take matters into their own hands as the debate over how to make electronic voting more reliable continues.

Cuyahoga County commissioners this week said they want to ditch their new touchscreen voting equipment before the next election. Voters in Sarasota County agreed in November to do the same thing.

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