WSJ: Many states still do not require a paper trail for touch screen machines

September 14, 2012
Joel Schectman
news photo

A decade after Dana Debeauvoir helped change Travis County, Texas to an all-electronic voting system she still expects to be falsely accused of fixing the coming election, just as she had in the last two presidential races. The clerk, who has administered voting for 25 years in the county that includes Austin, says the public has remained mistrustful of the ballot system, where voters pick candidates directly from a computer screen, without marking a piece of paper. “There have been so many hard feelings,” says Debeauvoir. “You get people saying ‘I know you have been flipping votes.’”

In the wake of the hanging chad controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential elections, the federal government encouraged election administrators across the country to switch to electronic systems and mandated upgrades to many election procedures. As they prepare for the presidential elections, those officials now find themselves at the center of a continuing debate over whether paperless direct-record electronic (DRE) balloting can be trusted – what Debeauvoir calls the “DRE wars.”

The controversy centers on 16 states, including Texas, New Jersey and Maryland, where some or all counties do not back up electronic ballots with a paper record that voters can inspect before leaving the booth, according to Pamela Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation, an activist group that opposes paperless voting. Critics say the public needs a paper trail of the votes to be sure that software glitches, hardware malfunctions or hacking haven’t corrupted election results.

“It is horrifying and people should be horrified,” said Penny Venetis, a Rutgers law professor who sued New Jersey in 2004 to force the state to maintain paper backups of its electronic ballots. “Right now we have no way to check that votes were actually cast properly.”

Critics cite numerous cases of malfunctioning electronic voting systems in recent years. In New York state’s 2010 primary and general elections, an overheated machine in New York City’s South Bronx incorrectly invalidated hundreds of votes because it misread the optically scanned ballots. The errors were discovered when the New York Daily News demanded to inspect the scanned paper ballots using the state’s Freedom of Information Law, more than a year later.

The problem was only uncovered because, unlike in states like Maryland and Texas, New York mandates a paper record, for use in audits and hand-counts if the election is close, said Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the state’s Board of Elections.

“The paper votes are critical for determining that you are counting accurately,” says Kellner. “Without a paper audit trail, all you can do is trust the results.”

Critics say the danger of an entirely paperless system was illustrated in New Jersey last year when a court ordered a tiny local election for Cumberland County’s Democratic committee to be invalidated and redone.  The court learned that the voting machine had misattributed a few dozen votes to the wrong parties, declaring the victors to be the losers. The problem was only discovered when 28 residents signed affidavits stating they had voted for the losers – a married couple. The Sequoia AVC Advantage machine, which keeps no paper record of ballots, reported the couple to have received just ten votes. The voting machine vendor, now called Dominion Voting, did not return requests for comment.

“It was fortuitous that there were so few voters in the community,” said Venetis, who had represented the couple in court. “The community is so small and everyone knows everyone. Can you imagine if this happened in Newark or Camden? You aren’t going to have 2,000 people say they voted for you.”

But election officials in states without paper backups say that while malfunctions can occur, rigorous testing and post-election auditing make such problems unlikely to be widespread. In Maryland, where no paper record of votes is kept, each machine is individually tested before elections to ensure results are properly recorded, said Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator of elections for the state.

After balloting closes, a record of how many people voted at each station is compared with the electronic ballot count to make sure that the system did not lose votes or add votes, Goldstein said.

The touch screen systems used in the state are all standalone – not networked – making it unlikely that the same problem would simultaneously affect many machines, Goldstein said.

“The idea that there could be a malfunction on all 20,000 units on Election Day is extremely unlikely,” Goldstein said.

But Ed Felten, a Princeton University computer scientist who has researched electronic voting machines, says that Maryland’s after-election audit might not capture a software glitch that misattributed votes.

The actual vote total could be accurate, said Felten, but “you don’t have any way of figuring out what voters intended to do.”

The paper trail Felten and other critics are calling for would allow voters to confirm that their electronic choice has been correctly selected on a paper backup displayed to them before they leave the voting booth. That paper choice would then be stored inside the machine, in case a recount was called for because of evidence of a malfunction or a close vote.

The ubiquity of electronic voting – both the type which scans paper ballots marked by voters, and the paperless touch screens — is the result of an earlier national effort to safeguard the vote, which grew out of the 2000 Florida debacle.

Debates over hanging chads and voter intention cast a cloud of suspicion over the presidential election for some of the public. To prevent future ambiguity, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which funded the replacement of manual systems like the punch cards in Florida or the lever system in New York, with electronic systems.

The electronic systems, created by a small group of private vendors, were intended to eliminate voter confusion and the need for human interpretation by offering clear options on a computer screen. Proponents say these digital systems also offer easier access for the visually impaired through audio reading of the candidates.

But while HAVA pushed states to make the switch, the law put in place few requirements for the new systems, said Lawrence Norden, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s voting project.

Beyond not requiring a paper trail, the rules don’t mandate replacement dates. Norden says many of the machines, now more than a decade old, are coming to the end of their life span, risking the same kind of freezes and slowdowns as any aging computer.

HAVA also did not mandate that states report voting machine problems to a centralized database. Norden says this means officials often have no way of knowing if the voting machines used in their state or county have had bugs elsewhere, leaving them unprepared to make the fix.

Many officials in the paperless states now agree that there must be some form of physical backup. Maryland and New Jersey have both passed laws which would require a paper vote copy – though budget issues have so far prevented the transition.

Debeauvoir, the Texas election official, now believes a paper backup is necessary for public confidence in future elections, though she says the county’s paperless system has been accurate for ten years and is superior to the optical scan system used before. She now believes the ability to carry out a physical re-count has become necessary for the public trust.

“We are in an environment that has been so tainted by criticism — a lot of which was unfair and skewed,” Debeauvoir said. “Voters will feel more protected if there’s a paper ballot and so that’s what I want for them.”