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Don't Touch That Screen

When It Comes to Electronic Voting, He's a Paper Tiger

August 01, 2004|MARK EHRMAN

In these days of everything electronic, sometimes paper still triumphs. In April, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley rocked the brave new world of touch-screen voting by banning machines that don't generate a paper confirmation of each vote, unless the 15 counties using them adopted a strict set of guidelines. Anti-touch-screen activists lauded the move, but Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern and Plumas counties and disability advocates filed suit, claiming the edict violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because the machines made it easier for the visually and manually impaired to vote. In July, the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles found Shelley's decision "a reasonable one." Savoring victory, the former Assembly majority leader sizes up the marriage of technology and democracy and tackles the question, "Can they all get along?"

A voter-verified paper trail sounds like a no-brainer. How did so many machines go online without them?

It goes back to Florida in 2000--those punch cards which created the chads. Also in California that same election, some 160,000 votes were invalidated because of punch cards. To solve that very legitimate problem, touch screens were rushed into use without all the software, all the hardware, worked out.

The manufacturers claim there are safeguards in place to ensure accurate vote tabulation.

Poppycock. It's not us saying it's ineffective; studies have proven it. It's breakdowns in Alameda, San Diego, Maryland, Georgia. These machines have failed, have been hacked into, have found their source code placed on the Web. Not a single study has said, "There ain't a problem." So I would hope vendors would say, "We want to be your partners in helping to restore faith in this process."

Are you concerned about the vote being rigged?

Absolutely.

Over 40% of California's voters in the March election used touch screens. Doesn't revamping the system at this late hour put us in a "damned if we do, damned if we don't" situation for November?

First of all, it's unfortunate that some counties sued. We could have saved two months had the counties simply followed our directives. I could've said that none of these machines could be used in California--period. What I said was, "Look, if you don't have a voter-verified paper trail, you can provide the voter with the option of voting on paper." In addition, we require access to the source code--what tells you whether there are any viruses, any bugs, any what's called "malicious code." You can determine if the machinery has been hacked into. Also, no Internet, no modem, no wireless hookup. And that a poll worker training plan is submitted to the Secretary of State with demonstrations that workers have been trained in this technology.

You did, however, completely decertify one system, the Diebold AccuVote-TSX, and asked for an investigation into the company's practices.

We did not get truthful representations by Diebold. They told us the equipment was going to be approved by the federal government. Instead, they went to the independent testing authority and asked them to certify a different piece of equipment. It significantly disadvantaged California in the last election when that very equipment failed. The law stipulates that before one installs software, a vendor must get approval from the state. Well, in all 17 counties in which they installed software, they illegally installed software that was never approved by the state.

These verified paper trails, it's a printer? Like the one you have in your house?

No, the voter will view it behind a secure plastic or glass viewing area. They will confirm that their vote is listed exactly on paper as they see it on the screen, but they will not walk away with that paper. You have that paper within the machinery for recount purposes and for overall tabulation.

Why even go to touch screens if they have such problems?

The optical scan--the old SAT fill-in-the-blank--has the lowest error rate. It is an accurate, successful form of voting. I do acknowledge touch-screen machines have advantages in terms of access, of being able to display other languages. They have a place, but only if these procedures are put in place.

There's criticism that you seized upon this issue as a way to elevate the low-profile secretary of state.

Yeah, I suppose I came up with recalling Gray Davis to up my profile, as well. These issues are thrust upon one. Nothing is more important in our democracy than protecting the right to vote. To not take an aggressive approach to ensuring that right would be irresponsible, and that's exactly what the judge said.

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