The paper chase

County leaders postpone a bid for digital democracy amid fears of vote tampering

High-tech “paperless” voting has fueled fears of election rigging on an unprecedented scale.

High-tech “paperless” voting has fueled fears of election rigging on an unprecedented scale.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Last week, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors walked to the edge of the abyss, took a long look and then took a giant step back.

Well, that may be overly dramatizing it a bit. But the supervisors did consider a proposition many find genuinely scary—tossing out our old punch-card voting machines and replacing them with a fancy new computerized system—and decided, for now, not to go there.

The sparsely attended meeting merited not even a mention in the local press last week. But what didn’t happen there is, in many ways, more important than what did.

The board did what it had to do under a federal court order issued in the wake of the Florida election debacle of 2000 that required the county to replace its punch-card voting system by March 2004. The supervisors passed a stopgap measure that will replace the familiar punch-card machines with an equally low-tech “optical scan” system in time for the 2004 primaries, and agreed to revisit the idea of touch-screen voting in a few months.

The board did not embrace, for now, the idea of “paperless voting,” which Sacramento has toyed with for nearly two years and which other local governments in the state have implemented already. Computer scientists and other activists believe such touch-screen systems are ripe for fraud and vote tampering on an unprecedented scale.

Although local voters may not know it, Sacramento is at the forefront of a national debate about paperless voting—as local governments across the country contemplate spending billions to retool and replace the very infrastructure of democracy.

The controversial Florida election of 2000 put a spotlight on local election procedures and technology. Fairly or not, the “chad” became emblematic of the problems associated with 20th-century voting systems, and there has been a national push to replace punch cards and other mechanical voting machines with state-of-the-art computers.

In California, the American Civil Liberties Union and election-reform advocate group Common Cause brought a lawsuit against nine California counties, arguing that the punch-card system was likely to disenfranchise voters, especially people of color who reside in the heavily urban counties where punch-card systems are used most commonly.

Federal judges agreed and ordered the nine California counties that use punch-card systems, including Sacramento, San Diego and Los Angeles, to scrap the machines by March 2004.

The order didn’t spell out what the replacement should be, but it was widely assumed that the new systems would be computerized, touch-screen systems. And there are a host of other pressures on local government to move away from punch cards and toward computer systems.

The Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, requires every local government to provide at least one machine per polling place that allows the blind and other disabled voters to cast a secret ballot without assistance. Computerized touch-screen systems have an advantage there, because, for example, a sightless voter could use headphones to hear his or her choices. New state legislation also requires that voting machines be accessible to disabled voters. Both laws require the systems to be in place by 2006.

There’s quite a lot of money on the table right now to encourage local governments to replace all of their voting machines. HAVA provides nearly $4 billion to replace punch cards. And in 2002, California voters passed Proposition 41, which created a pot of $200 million to help purchase new voting systems. Both the state and federal monies are matching funds, requiring local governments to pony up half the expense themselves.

The vendors of these systems stand to make millions, possibly billions, as America’s 3,000-plus counties look to revamp their election systems.

Those jurisdictions that already have gone digital have purchased paperless systems: The voter makes his or her choice on a touch screen and then walks out, trusting that the machine recorded the vote as the voter intended.

The vendors use proprietary software to tabulate votes, and they have the legal right to keep that software completely secret. Critics say that amounts to unprecedented corporate control over elections. They worry about a loss of transparency in the voting process, if voters are asked to put their trust in software and computer programmers, instead of a solid, verifiable ballot voters can hold in their hands.

And early on in the national computerized-voting experiment, problems have cropped up. Those glitches have raised questions about the reliability of the technology and have fueled fears that computerized voting machines could allow tampering and fraud on a scale never seen before.

In Raleigh, N.C., last year, the touch-screen system lost nearly 300 votes.

In Georgia, where the entire state used touch-screen voting for the first time, there were concerns that the software used to run the election accidentally had been posted on a public Internet site. There was no evidence that the software was tampered with, though critics say it might have been. There were reports in Georgia of voters touching one candidate’s name on the screen, while the machine recorded a vote for a different candidate. Those machines were quickly replaced, and voters who were paying attention were able to correct the error, but election officials conceded that some unknown number of votes had been recorded incorrectly.

Very few touch-screen systems give voters a printout to confirm that their votes were recorded correctly.

In Nebraska, where Senator Chuck Hagel trounced his Democratic opponent, it was discovered that Hagel owned 25 percent of the corporation that ran that election.

In Georgia and Nebraska, there is no evidence that the touch-screen systems had been tampered with or that the programming errors had changed election results. But there also was no paper trail, no piece of paper for voters to review to ensure their votes had been recorded accurately, and there was no stack of ballots for poll workers to count and check the results.

Without that paper trail, some say, no one would be the wiser if software had been tampered with or if machines had been rigged or simply had malfunctioned.

“When you have 100-percent computerized elections, run on secret software,” warned Kim Alexander with the California Voter Foundation, “you have a recipe for fraud. Not only fraud, but fraud that goes completely undetected.”

That is why Alexander and others are pushing for a “voter-verified paper trail.” They say that voting systems need to produce a piece of paper that the voter can review at the time of the vote, and that systems need to store a hard copy of the ballot for later use by election officials.

Most systems can produce a paper ballot if needed, usually just a printout of the information that is stored in the machine. That doesn’t help, said Alexander, if the computer recorded the vote incorrectly. California state law does require that 1 percent of the ballots cast in all races be counted by hand to ensure the accuracy of the election. Without a paper ballot that is generated at the time of the vote, California’s manual-count law would be meaningless, Alexander argued.

But a voter-verified paper trail has been a tough sell. Many election officials say all that paper would make systems more expensive and would be difficult to store.

And the voter-verified system is not popular with advocates for the blind and disabled, who argue that it would delay implementation of computerized voting and that such systems actually discriminate against the blind.

“This creates problems for blind and visually impaired people who cannot independently verify these paper ballots,” said Dan Kaiser, director of the California Council for the Blind, urging Sacramento supervisors not to consider a voter-verified paper trail.

“It also seems a little redundant. You have to get to a point where you trust your security and trust the people you have hired to do the job,” Kaiser added.

Alexander believes there are ways to address the concerns of the disabled community while still ensuring transparency of elections for the majority of voters.

“Transparency is key to making sure the software is working properly, and if not, that we can catch it.” Alexander noted that despite the increasing computerization of daily life, people still rely heavily on paper. “There isn’t any transaction in your life as important as your ballot that is completely paperless. The deed to your house, all of your ATM transactions, those all live on paper.”

Supervisors support the idea of a paper trail but appear divided over what kind of paper trail and whether voters need to verify their ballots. Only one of the five vendors that bid for the county contract offered a voter-verified paper trail.

Proposition 41 requires that any new voting system provide an auditable paper trail, but there has been much disagreement over what that means. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, who authored Proposition 41, is expected to clarify the rules any day, though as of press time, he had not made a decision.

Not knowing what the state law ultimately would require in the way of a paper trail, and with concerns about paperless voting on the rise, Sacramento Registrar of Voters Ernie Hawkins thought it best to avoid the possibility of a costly mistake. He recommended to the supervisors that the county cancel its bid for a new voting system, at least until the issue becomes clearer.

The cost of the temporary system is estimated at $85,000, a pittance compared with the $20 million the county would have to cough up to move to a touch-screen system, at a time when the county is facing its worst budget situation in decades. But the optical-scan system, in which voters mark a ballot that looks like a fill-in-the-bubble standardized test form, is only a temporary measure. The county is expected to issue another request for bids in the next six months to a year. When the proposals come in, supervisors will have to wrestle again with the question of paperless voting.

Alexander thinks that, by then, the board can be convinced that a voter-verified system is the way to go. There appears to be a growing movement away from paperless voting, as the implications of such a system sink in among voters and politicians. Federal legislation introduced last week by Representative Rush Holt, D-N.J., would require voter-verified paper records by 2004. The law’s chances are slim, but Alexander believes it marks a national shift in thinking.

“I think there’s a sea change coming. I think a voter-verified system is inevitable. It’s just a question of how much money we’ll waste and how many voters we’ll lose in the meantime.”

Hawkins, a nationally recognized expert on election laws and procedures, questions the rush toward digital voting systems.

He said the problems of the 2000 election had more to do with bad procedures and bad law than with the technology itself. Hawkins said the federal law, HAVA, is a solution in search of a problem. “I defy you to find anything in that bill that would have made a tinker’s damn worth of difference in what happened in Florida.”

And although he believes it would be nearly impossible for someone to tamper with touch-screen machines, he fears that new computerized-voting procedures will make voters a bit nervous, at a time when they are staying away from the polls already. "My fear is that the confidence people have in the system is going to be diminished." The consequence could be that elections get more expensive even as fewer people decide to vote. "It’s a very scary process that is happening now."