E-Vote Fix Unlikely By Nov. 2

Just five weeks before Election Day, federal legislators are increasingly casting doubt on electronic voting terminals and demanding that touchscreen computers produce paper records.

But it's unlikely that their concerns will result in reforms before Nov. 2. Many are pushing for national regulations requiring a "voter verifiable paper trail" starting in 2006 or later.

On Monday, a federal appeals court revived a lawsuit filed by Florida Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler, who is demanding that all touchscreen voting machines in Florida produce a paper record of every vote cast.

A three-judge panel in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals told a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale to reopen the case, which could affect 15 Florida counties whose electronic voting terminals do not issue paper records.

Wexler claims that paperless ballots cannot be recounted as accurately as those cast on paper. He sued state election officials, arguing that the Constitution would be violated by a voting system that varies from county to county.

"I became involved because my district was the butterfly ballot district in 2000," Wexler, a Democrat who represents parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties, said Monday. "My constituents are extremely sensitive about the fact that many of their votes weren't counted."

Florida adopted touchscreens after the 2000 debacle involving punch-card ballots and hanging chads. A five-week court battle over disputed ballots from several counties kept the outcome of the presidential election up in the air until the Supreme Court issued a ruling that gave President Bush a 537-vote margin.

About 50 million Americans will be eligible to cast electronic ballots on Nov. 2. More than 100,000 machines have been installed nationwide, but few produce paper records of every ballot.

Critics say such systems expose elections to hackers, software bugs and hardware failures and cannot be accurately recounted. They are urging election officials to ban paperless machines — and provide stacks of paper ballots instead.

"You can't go into an election without clear procedures at the outset describing how recounts will be conducted," said e-voting critic Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. "The only truly meaningful recount is to recount the voter's paper record."

Many politicians agree — though that stance is at odds with executives at large technology companies and some constituents.

Some disabled advocates say touchscreens, which can be equipped with headsets, are the only system that allows blind people to cast secret ballots. Computers can toggle between foreign languages, making it easier for nonnative English speakers.

Earlier this year, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley became the first election official to ban the use of some touchscreens that had already been installed, and he threatened a criminal investigation into equipment maker Diebold Inc., which installed uncertified software in some machines.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recently co-sponsored legislation to require all voting machines to produce paper ballots by July 2006. Speaking at a technology conference in June, Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, implored technology executives to build products "with integrity and accuracy."

New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt has penned letters to the Washington Post and other publications, saying paperless voting terminals have "serious defects." The Democrat's Web site warns that voters who cast electronic ballots have no way of knowing their vote was recorded properly.

The legal issue in Monday's unsigned decision was not about paper ballots but an obscure doctrine governing the relationship between federal and state courts. Although the case was revived on a technicality, computer experts said Wexler's mounting criticism could galvanize other high-profile politicians to speak against paperless systems.

"The politicians who haven't weighed in are uninformed — it's that simple," said Roxanne Jekot, a retired IBM researcher and computer programmer who examined voting software and found major security breaches. "They'll look even more uninformed after election day."

Many county registrars say installing a new system five weeks before an election would confound poll workers and guarantee breakdowns on election day. Wexler acknowledged that Monday's decision was a victory "in the long term."

But computer scientists said counties could install paper-based systems if courts demanded it.

"We know we could hold an election if all the paperless machines simply evaporated — we'd print paper ballots and hand-count the things," said Stanford University computer science professor David Dill. "We know it's doable — it's just a question of having the courts decide how severe an emergency this is."

Worries about preparations for the Nov. 2 vote go beyond electronic voting, and beyond Florida:

  • Former President Jimmy Carter wrote in an opinion piece published Monday in the Washington Post that despite changes designed to eliminate voting problems in Florida, the state still fails international requirements for fair elections like a nonpartisan voting supervisor.
  • Last month, Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood wrote to the U.S. Voting Assistance Commission and the FBI to say that his office "has become aware of reports of individuals registering and voting in the State of Florida and another state in the same election."
  • Hood earlier announced that the state would disregard a database of names of felons, who are supposed to be purged from the rolls of eligible voters, because it contained suspiciously few Hispanic names. Hispanics are considered more likely to vote Republican than blacks.
  • Citing worries about security, the Pentagon is blocking access to a Web site for U.S. voters overseas if their service providers have been targeted by hackers before, the International Herald Tribune reports.
  • Last November, computer voting machines in Boone County, Ind. somehow recorded 144,000 votes cast in a country where only 19,000 registered voters live. When corrected, it turned out a mere 5,352 ballots had actually been cast.
  • In a Fairfax County, Va. election the same month, at least one voting machine was reported to have subtracted votes from a school board candidate, rather than adding them.