Shift Back to Paper Ballots Sparks Disagreement

Voting officials across the country have been trying to find a secure, reliable voting system ever since the 2000 presidential elections. After electronic machine failures, a number of states are returning to paper ballots. But not everyone agrees that's the right way to go.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next we'll report on the effort to inoculate the nation against voting problems.

After the nightmares of the 2000 election, many states went to electronic voting machines. Now, after some failures they're shifting back to paper ballots.

NPR's Pam Fessler explains why this makes some people just as uncomfortable as they were before.

PAM FESSLER: It's usually not a good thing when a presentation to promote new voting technology begins like this.

Unidentified Man: We're going to get started in just a couple of minutes. I apologize for the delay, but we've had technical difficulties.

FESSLER: But audiovisual problems aside, participants in this Capitol Hill forum yesterday think technology is the answer to the nation's voting concerns.

Daniel Castro is a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a non-profit group affiliated with the high-tech industry. Castro notes that many people don't trust electronic voting and worry about fraud.

Mr. DANIEL CASTRO (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation): And so their solution is to go back to paper ballots or paper audit trails. And the reality is that historically elections have been conducted on paper and throughout the same history we've had election fraud.

FESSLER: He says the real issue is finding a better way for voters to verify that their votes have been counted correctly. So ITIF pulled together researchers with some creative proposals, including plans to secure votes cast by Americans abroad and to use video equipment to monitor what goes on inside a polling booth.

Stefan Popoveniuc is a doctoral student at George Washington University. He's helped developed a new vote tracking system called Scantegrity II.

Mr. STEFAN POPOVENIUC (Graduate Student): And actually two is spelled with Roman letters, I-I; it stands for invisible ink.

FESSLER: That's right, invisible ink.

Popoveniuc says the system can be used with a paper ballot, which looks like much like one a voter might see today. But on his, he can use a special yellow marker to make his choices.

Mr. POPOVENIUC: When I put this pen over this oval and I make a line, the invisible ink that's printed on the paper reacts with the chemical in this pen so the letters appear.

FESSLER: What do you see here?

Mr. POPOVENIUC: So right now I see H-D.

FESSLER: Right in the middle of the oval he marked.

The idea is that voters can use the letters, randomly assigned to each ballot, to check on a Web site later on to make sure that their votes are accurately recorded. How it works is too complicated to get into here. But the developers say it gives anyone who wants to a secure way to verify the vote.

Nearby, researchers from Auburn University display a system called Prime III, which has features to help the blind and disabled. But graduate student Jerome McClendon shows me an intriguing experimental version for other voters. He hands me a pair of virtual reality glasses.

Mr. JEROME McCLENDON (Graduate Student): I guess it's something you would see like in "Terminator" or "Back to the Future." They are a pair of shades with like a long black lens going across them.

FESSLER: I put the glasses on and can see a computer screen similar to a touch screen voting machine. I use a mouse to manipulate an arrow on the screen.

All right, so I press...

Mr. McCLENDON: Start.

FESSLER: ...start.

Mr. McCLENDON: Right.

FESSLER: Did I press start?

McCLENDON: Yeah. See...

FESSLER: Oh, there we go. Okay.

McClendon guides me through the system as I cast my sample vote. He says the results will be securely stored on a CD.

David Dill, a computer scientist at Stanford University, is skeptical. He think research into new voting technologies is fine, but worries it might be used to stop the return to paper-based voting, which he supports.

Professor DAVID DILL (Stanford University): What they're saying is there's something better just over the horizon. And so we should not fix our current bad voting systems because maybe something better will come along some day.

FESSLER: He thinks there are still way too many questions about how these new systems would work.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: There's no question that it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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