Senators to abandon '08 e-voting paper trail mandate

Democrat behind a bill to ban paperless touch-screen machines says she doesn't expect new rules to take effect until at least 2010.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor
WASHINGTON--Democratic senators on Wednesday made another push for banning electronic voting machines that lack paper trails, but they've backed away from doing so in time for next year's presidential election.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chief sponsor of a contentious bill called the Ballot Integrity Act that proposes such changes, said she fears requiring all states to employ so-called voter-verified paper records in their systems, with some primaries only six months away, "could be an invitation to chaos." Earlier this year, she called for enacting such changes by 2008.

"Pushing the date back to the 2010 elections will give us more time to reach a bipartisan consensus with voting reform advocates and local and state officials to enact a new law that provides for increased accuracy and accountability at the polls without raising the specter of creating major new errors," she said at the start of a hearing here in the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which she leads.

After listening to a rash of concerns about the bill's approach at Wednesday's hearing, Feinstein said it may be necessary to move any proposed deadline for a paper trail mandate "out a little farther."

Introduced just before the Memorial Day recess, Feinstein's bill is co-sponsored by 10 Democrats--including presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd--and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders. Clinton made a brief appearance on Wednesday to make a pitch for "21st century reforms" to the nation's voting system. In her view, that action includes requiring the use of voter-verified paper records that would serve as the official ballot of record, banning undisclosed e-voting software source code, and prohibiting wireless communications devices in voting systems. (A separate bill called the Count Every Vote Act, which she proposed earlier this year, also includes such steps.)

Election watchdog groups and prominent computer scientists have long argued that paper ballots are one of the surest ways for voters to verify their intent was recorded, especially amid evidence that touch-screen machines are vulnerable to security flaws and glitches. But election officials and some voting machine reviewers have argued paperless machines are not as flawed as their critics claim and that replacing them would be unduly time-consuming and expensive.

Feinstein's proposal would, among other things, impose an immediate halt to the purchase of direct-recording electronic voting systems that don't spit out paper records, set aside $600 million for states and localities to replace or retrofit paperless machines as needed, and allow voting machine software to be inspected by state and federal election authorities. She emphasized Wednesday that it is "not necessarily a finished product."

On target, but missing the bull's-eye
In some ways, the Senate effort resembles a bill approved by a House of Representatives panel in May. Election officials have criticized that bill as setting forth unrealistic requirements, insufficient funding and impossible timetables--including implementation, with some exceptions, by next year's elections. But advocacy groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, say it is an important step toward creating more open, transparent elections.

At Wednesday's hearing, a panel of state and local officials and a computer scientist with decades of experience evaluating voting machines told the committee that the Senate bill is slightly preferable to the House version but is still unsupportable for a number of reasons.

The bill "is aimed at the right target, but it needs to be loaded with the right ammunition," said George Gilbert, director of the Guilford County Board of Elections in North Carolina. Right now, the "ammunition" is a paper voting record and manual tabulation, but "the fact that the two most celebrated recent attempts to manually count ballots have dealt severe blows to public confidence should raise red flags for this committee," he argued, referring to the infamous Florida presidential recount in 2000 and a close governor's race in Washington state in 2004.

Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz and other panelists claimed the technology required by the current draft--in particular, paper records for touch-screen voting machines that are durable, privacy-protecting and accessible to the disabled--is not even commercially available yet. (Feinstein, for her part, denied that her bill requires "technology that doesn't exist.")

Michael Shamos, a longtime Carnegie Mellon computer science professor who currently examines voting systems in Pennsylvania, urged the politicians to reject the assumption that paper records are more secure than electronic ones. For one thing, one in five direct recording electronic machines outfitted with printers fails on election day--about double the rate of glitches with paperless machines, he said.

"There has to be a better way, and indeed there is," he argued. "However, if the bill is enacted in its present form, the better way will never reach the market because the requirement of a paper trail forecloses any possibility of continued research and development on methods of voter verification."

For instance, an innovative paperless approach is under development and was recently tested at Auburn University, Shamos said. The system would rely on a "mechanical witness," a completely independent device in the voting booth that would keep track of the voter's selections and deselections for use in subsequent audits and present the voter's selection on a separate screen for verification and changes.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah)--who, along with several other Republicans, has been skeptical of the Feinstein bill--said he liked that idea, although he added, "it also sounds very expensive."

Representatives from Verified Voting and the Association for Computing Machinery, two organizations that have advocated for years for physical paper records and subsequent audits of electronic voting machines, did not participate in Wednesday's hearing and told CNET News.com afterward that they had not yet taken a stance on the bill. ACM computer scientists did, however, send a letter to Feinstein on Tuesday saying they believe a number of their policy principles are "embodied" in her proposal.

To be sure, a number of states have already taken the sort of action that Feinstein, her allies and voter rights advocates support. Verified Voting notes that 30 states have already enacted legislation or regulations requiring paper ballots, although not all of those policies have taken effect yet.

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