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E-Voting: Trust, but Verify

September 23, 2004

It doesn't take a Luddite to wonder whether tapping an electronic touch screen is really as safe as marking a paper ballot.

Last fall, for instance, e-voting machines recorded an amazing 144,000 votes in Indiana's Boone County, which has fewer than 19,000 voters. County Clerk Lisa Garofolo said "I about had a heart attack" watching the impossible numbers roll out on her computer screen. She traced the problem to software programming errors, not deliberate fraud. But hackers across the country have brainstormed ways to tamper with election results. In test sessions overseen by Johns Hopkins University personnel, invited hackers showed alarming success against one Diebold model of touch-screen machine.

Even so, ready or not, roughly one-third of U.S. voters are supposed to use touch screens to vote in the November election. In California, that includes 11 counties that cumulatively have 20% of the electorate.

Fans of electronic voting, including members of a ballot project at Caltech, say voters themselves ought to be more vigilant. In a report issued Tuesday, they recommended that voters stop and double-check their choices on the summary screen that should appear at the end of any e-voting session. And, they said, don't be shy or ashamed about asking for help with unfamiliar procedures -- assuming, of course, that hastily trained volunteers at election sites know enough to offer help.

Some tech-heads dismiss voters' desire for a paper printout. Too expensive, they say. Too cumbersome. But Nevada this month conducted a smooth statewide primary using touch screens with a paper printout. The paper trail is saved in case a recount is needed. Sure, some trees died, but the need for voter confidence justifies it.

The voter watchdog in California ought to be Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. He should be helping counties set up independent oversight of e-voting machines to guard against tampering. But Shelley's own missteps and alleged political use of federal voter registration grant money led to calls Tuesday for an investigation. He's distracted, to say the least.

Shelley hasn't managed to create a statewide voter registration database, a master list that can be checked if a voter turns up in the wrong polling place or a name falls off the rolls. Without it, California will have trouble claiming its full share of $3.8 billion in federal election aid for the states.

Voters may long for the return of Bill Jones, the Republican secretary of state who was termed out in 2003 and has gone on to run a hapless and nearly hopeless Senate campaign against Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. Jones was perfectly suited to be an election watchdog. It's an indictment of political term limits that he couldn't stay in a job he did so well.

Back in the real world, a bill requiring all e-voting machines to produce a "voter-verified paper audit trail" by January 2006 sits on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk waiting to be signed into law. Schwarzenegger should sign the measure, SB 1438, even though it's no help for November. As Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify." At least, that is, until voters nationwide get a lot more comfortable with e-voting.

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