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The Odd Conflict over E-Voting

The role of technology in U.S. elections has become the center of a curious fight in which the forces aren't lining up at all the way you might think. On one side, state and local elections officials, often thought to be technological troglodytes, are the most enthusiastic fans of the latest in computerized voting systems. On the other is a group of computer scientists and other academics who are deeply suspicious of the technology and believe the best answer is, of all things, paper ballots.

This split was on display Dec. 10-11 at a conference called "Building Trust and Confidence in Voting Systems" at the National Institute of Standards & Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. And the division isn't as improbable as it seems at first glance.

The fundamental issue is that unlike paper ballots or even the much-maligned punch cards, voters see no physical record of their ballot with what are called direct-recording electronic systems. And the counting of the votes takes place inside a black box, with no physical records to serve as a backup.

QUICK FIX. Computer-security experts base their analysis on what can go wrong if you assume the worst case. "The reality is that systems can and do fail," Rebecca Mercuri of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government told the conference, reciting a litany of odd goings-on with electronic voting systems.

"When we find problems with elections, we jump for the quick technical fix," said Douglas Jones of the University of Iowa. "We have to defend against the machine itself." Aviel Rubin of Johns Hopkins painted a bleak picture, saying, "Unintended security flaws [in voting systems] are unavoidable, while intentional flaws are undetectable."

Elections officials live in a very difficult world. They have to do the best they can with inadequate budgets and undertrained staffs. Like so much other recent federal legislation, the Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA), passed in the wake of the 2000 Florida Presidential fiasco, has imposed piles of new requirements on states, while the promised funding somehow got lost along the way. In fact, it took the Senate a full year to confirm the members of the Election Assistance Commission, established by HAVA to develop standards for electronic voting systems. Current systems are certified using Federal Election Commission standards that just about everyone regards as inadequate.

BLIND BALLOT. "We need you to understand how elections are run," Colorado Secretary of State Donetta Davidson pleaded with the technology experts. For example, she said, ballots in her state are finalized just 55 days before an election. Since the voting systems must be programmed for each election, perfection in certification and testing is a lot to ask for.

Everyone agrees that election systems have to be accurate, tamper-proof, easy to use for both voters and polling-place officials, accessible to all voters (including the blind), and auditable. Those requirements are tough to meet, but an additional requirement is the killer: anonymity. A recorded ballot cannot be traced back to an individual voter, nor can a voter be able to use a ballot to obtain payment for a vote. Says David Dill, a Stanford computer scientist: "Unlike almost any other application, voting systems must discard critical information."

The solution researchers generally favor is called a voter-verified ballot, which California plans to require starting in 2006. In the system many support, after voting with touch-screen machines, voters would receive a printed record of their ballot, which they would deposit in a ballot box. These would either be counted as the "real" ballots, or at least would be available as a backup for a manual recount.

CHECK AT HOME. The solution sounds reasonable, but elections officials are strongly opposed, mostly because of the added complexity. "The average election judge in Colorado is 70 years old," says Davidson. "Can they even change the paper rolls in the printers? What happens if the printer jams and people can't get receipts? Can they not vote?"

Seattle-based VoteHere Inc. has what it hopes is a solution. When a voter's final ballot is displayed on a touch-screen system, the name of each candidate chosen is accompanied by a code unique to that ballot. The voter gets a printed receipt that shows only the codes, not the candidate names.

Since it doesn't show how the person voted, the voter can leave the polls with it. Later, by entering the ballot number on a Web site, the voter can see an electronic copy of the receipt as evidence that the ballot was recorded and counted. If it doesn't match, any discrepancy can be taken to election officials. It's an elegant solution and is being incorporated in Sequoia Voting Systems' AVC Edge touch-screen systems. But it may be conceptually too complicated to convince voters that their ballots are real.

In the end, election officials will likely prevail over the computer experts because electronic systems, as simple as possible, are the only way they can meet all the mandates and still live within their budgets. They know it won't be perfect, but as Davidson put it, "there is no nonproblem system." By Stephen H. Wildstrom in Washington, D.C.

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