A National Experiment In Voting

In D.C. Area and Across Nation, Touch-Screen Machines Face Biggest Test

By Douglas Jehl

New York Times

September 23, 2004

Trust the computer. That's what Maryland told Linda Schade.

The Takoma Park resident and Green Party member believes in saving the environment, but also believes that a few trees are worth sacrificing for democracy. She is a co-founder of Truevotemd.org, and among the determined activists around the country who claim that electronic voting machines -- like the touch-screen devices that will count Marylanders' votes this November -- are so shot through with problems that no one will know whether their votes were counted correctly, or at all.

"At first you say, 'God, a computer glitch, is this for real?'" Schade said. "Because in some ways it feels a little bit abstract. But once you get into it a little bit, you realize this is a very serious problem."

She says the machines should offer printed receipts and that voters uncomfortable with the machines should have the option of turning in a paper ballot. Earlier this month the state's highest court upheld a circuit judge's ruling against an injunction that would have forced changes for the upcoming election. As the issue stands now, residents will vote paperless Nov. 2, although the case brought by Schade and seven other plaintiffs -- including several state elected officials and candidates -- will return to the lower court and could still bear on future elections in Maryland.

"It wasn't a surprising decision," Schade said. "At this point it really is challenging to find remedies that are implementable" by Nov. 2. Maryland election administrators, like those in other states, have argued that it is too late to establish a "paper trail" that could be used to verify votes independent of the data issued by the machines.

Schade's quixotic quest illustrates a growing awareness of the fragile nature of democracy's keystone principle. This year, some 6 million Washington-area voters will tap computer screens instead of pulling levers, punching cards or marking ballots. Some of them have used the machines before, but this year will see their most widespread use yet. It is a key test of their reliability as they take a major part in determining the outcome of what might be one of the closest presidential elections in American history.

Many have championed "direct recording electronic" voting as the only replacement to the antiquated systems that spawned disasters such as the 2000 Florida presidential election voting debacle, but some predict that they will punch a gaping hole in the nation's democratic fabric.

"I see electronic voting machines as undermining democracies," said former Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "What could happen is an election with less credibility than the presidential election in 2000 had."

Some voting machine makers already are testing versions of their machines with printers attached, but that could add hundreds of dollars to the cost of the hardware. State and local governments have already spent millions of dollars on computerized voting machines, and do not relish shelling out more cash. Local elections boards say that even if they wanted to, they can't do it in time for this election because the machines would have to undergo a new round of federal and state certification.

Maryland's Voting Battle

Paper trails will not make voting more secure, said Maryland State Board of Elections Administrator Linda Lamone. "The state has complete control over the entire process," she said. "It's a 'Chicken Little' issue."

Lamone said successfully hacking the voting system "would be extremely unlikely. ... We've developed a security plan for the entire agency, everything from the computers on our desks all the way to the voting system."

Maryland became one of the flashpoints in the electronic voting debate after it spent $55 million on machines made by Diebold Election Systems. A 2003 report co-authored by Johns Hopkins University professor Aviel D. Rubin subsequently determined that the machines could be subjected to manipulation by hackers. In addition, a study commissioned by Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) and conducted by SAIC Corp. revealed security problems, as did a study commissioned by the state Department of Legislative Services, conducted by Columbia-based RABA Technologies.

All this prompted Truevotemd.org's more than 2,000 members to demand the right to vote on paper, but the elections board refused.

In California, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (D) said the machines can be used only if voters are allowed to use paper ballots upon request, poll workers are properly trained and the machines are never connected to the Internet.

Maryland's paper trail proponents think Shelley's plan could work for the rest of the country, which is still awaiting guidelines from the federal Elections Assistance Commission. The commission was established by Congress to develop the guidelines after lawmakers approved $3.9 billion in funding to help states modernize their voting systems by 2006.

Maryland Del. Karen S. Montgomery (D-Montgomery) and other legislators have urged Ehrlich to hold a special session to pass legislation requiring a paper trail after the General Assembly failed to act on a similar bill before the end of the regular session. Montgomery said that the chance of a special session is unlikely considering the last one was held in 1992. Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor is satisfied with the fixes that the elections board made following the security reports, and is confident that the machines are ready for use in November.

The Maryland e-voting debate has coincided with Lamone's battle with the state's Republican-led elections board, which has been trying to remove the Democratic appointee from her post, only to have its arguments -- like those of the paper-trail advocates -- put off until after the November election.

"I am very sorry and disturbed that the Maryland exploration of the need for a voter-certified paper trail has been so distorted and so mixed up with, shall we say, personalities and politics, rather than dealing with the ... fact that it is not a secure system and is absolutely vulnerable to various distortions," said Montgomery, who like Lamone is a Democrat, but opposes the Diebold machines.

Lamone fiercely defends the new technology: "I can tell you that the voters overwhelmingly love the equipment. ... We are hearing from some folks who are buying into this paper-trail issue. They don't understand the procedures that we use to ensure that nothing can happen to the voting system." The procedures include software and hardware testing, double-sealing with special tape designed to show when tampering has occurred, and rereading of memory cards by counties the day after the election, Lamone said.

Dual Systems, Local Choices

The District of Columbia and Virginia have taken different approaches to electronic voting. D.C. voting officials mandated that every precinct have one Sequoia Systems AVC Edge machine alongside an optical-scan system that requires voters to mark their choices on paper by filling in an oval with a pen, then running the card through a scanning machine. The touch-screen machines were brought in to settle a lawsuit charging that the optical-scan systems were not accessible to disabled voters, according to officials, but anyone can use them.

In an election Sept. 14, the dual system led to a three-hour delay in releasing final results when the last data cartridges from the touch-screen machines arrived at the elections board well after the paper-ballot totals. D.C. elections board Chairman Wilma A. Lewis told The Washington Post that the board would use the time leading up to the Nov. 2 election to find ways to improve the reporting of results.

Virginia's elections board leaves the decision in the hands of local officials. Some Northern Virginia communities, including Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William County, will use electronic voting technology for the first time this year. Others, such as Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax City and Fairfax County have used it in several elections.

Falls Church and Fredericksburg did not upgrade their systems in time for the November election, which means that next year's elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and House of Delegates would be the earliest time that residents of those cities might use electronic voting machines. The same is true for Fauquier, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties, but not because they are worried about paper records.

"Do I want to see a receipt given to each person? No I don't," said Betsy Mayr, deputy registrar for Fauquier County. "On a touch-screen they have ample opportunity to see that they have voted everything that they want to vote on that ballot."

Stafford County Registrar Ray Davis said the controversy has been generated by "the pseudo-experts that they think they... can program the [touch-screen] equipment." Davis said that the county will buy a computerized system once the Elections Assistance Commission develops guidelines.

"We trust them," said T.Q. Hutchinson, voting secretary for Fairfax City.

The General Assembly earlier this year approved a resolution by Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax) to convene a commission to come up with recommendations on electronic voting, but those recommendations probably will be released no earlier than two years from now. That action followed an incident in Fairfax County last November in which Republicans blamed a school board candidate's narrow loss on malfunctioning e-voting machines manufactured by Frisco, Texas-based Advanced Voting Solutions.

Loudoun County will use optical scanning ballots this November. Next year it hopes to buy a supplemental device from Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based Automark that allows disabled voters to cast their ballots on optical-scan machines without assistance. The device, which was developed with assistance from Diebold competitor Election Systems & Software, is still awaiting its federal certification.

"In our county we've had so many recounts that if worse came to worst, we could always count the ballots by hand," said Election Board Secretary Dianna Price.

Arlington, which has already used its touch-screen devices in three elections, has refined its techniques for training poll workers, said General Registrar Linda Lindberg, after some rough patches marred the machines' debut in November 2003. Partly because the system was introduced close to the election, the instructions for shutting down the machines were missing some key steps, Lindberg said, with delays resulting from workers' efforts to figure out the procedure.

Arlington now prepares workers with a three-tiered training regimen -- a first level for neophytes, a second that acts as a refresher course for experienced workers and a third for precinct chiefs.

For jurisdictions that using only electronic voting machines, opponents of the systems say that people who want paper records should try to vote by absentee ballot. The District, Maryland and Virginia allow absentee voting for a variety of reasons, but do not have an allowance for people who distrust electronic voting machines. Maryland and Virginia officials will not allow people to vote on paper ballots at the polls unless they use "provisional ballots" if their names do not appear on the voting rolls but they insist they are registered.

Everybody Knows Chad

No one thought that electronic voting machines would be such a controversial subject. First used in the late 1980s, they were one more unremarkable, albeit modern way to perform a civic duty.

E-voting got hot in a hurry after irregularities in southern Florida nearly derailed the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and then-vice president Al Gore. While all kinds of problems, from registration foul-ups to voter error, affected the vote totals, it was the infamous punchcard ballot that captured the national imagination and injected poll-worker jargon about "pregnant" and "hanging" chads into the popular vocabulary.

The problems in Florida led Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which requires every voting district to modernize its election systems by 2006, authorizing $3.9 billion to make it happen. Many states leaped at the chance, even though the commission that is supposed to develop the guidelines for their use was appointed nearly a year late.

As a result, more than 50 million voters will use the machines this November, according to Election Data Services in Washington, D.C. That compares to 55.7 million voters who use optical scan machines, and 55.4 million who use punchcards, levers or paper ballots.

Americans' attitudes toward electronic voting machines are generally positive but complex, according to a survey commissioned by the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Utah. Asked which voting method they were most comfortable with, 38.3 percent of the 829 registered voters questioned chose electronic, versus 29.5 percent for optical scan, 18.4 percent for punch cards and 8 percent for other methods. An overwhelming majority said electronic systems made voting easier for the disabled. Asked whether electronic systems are more accurate than other methods, 39.4 percent agreed and 27 percent disagreed.

At the same time, a similar plurality -- 38.2 percent to 27.5 percent -- agreed that "electronic voting systems increase the potential for fraud." Even more indicated worries about "unintentional failures" -- 43.3 percent to 22.2 percent. (The margin of error for the overall numbers is 3.4 percentage points.)

This seeming discrepancy in attitudes is even more pronounced in respondents between the ages of 18 and 27. Of these younger voters, 56.1 percent favored electronic voting over other methods, and 54.5 percent said it was more accurate. But they also said, by a 49.5 percent to 18.9 percent margin, that the machines were more vulnerable to fraud -- and were less worried about unintentional failure than the national average.

"This is their experience with electronic technology. They've had their iPods freeze up, but they also want to use these technologies," said study co-author Thad E. Hall, a Utah political science professor. "Anything can screw up. ... As the 2000 election showed, you can even screw up a paper election. They see the tradeoffs but they're willing to accept them."

Legislative Efforts

Some in Congress have taken up the standard of paper-trail advocates. "Chances are there won't be a problem, but we'll never know," said U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who has authored a bill in the House of Representatives to require a voter-verified paper record. "Is there a person alive in the 20th century who hasn't encountered a bug in the computer? Even in computers where the programmers swear they got everything right."

Holt's bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Thomas Davis III (R-Va.), is frozen in the House Administration Committee. Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) believes that the Elections Assistance Commission and the Federal Election Commission should resolve the issue, said spokesman Brian Walsh. "A lot of rhetoric and conspiracy is taking the place of hard facts and science," Walsh said.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is sponsoring a similar bill, and recently added Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) to his list of supporters. However, he does not expect results in time to affect the upcoming presidential contest.

"I wish we could do something, but in terms of actually having it pass and signed into law and having an effect on the November 2004 election, that's not going to happen," Graham said.

"If there were some kind of major meltdown on Election Day, there might be the possibility of these bills moving forward post-election," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse that monitors and analyzes election reforms. "This is a crisis-driven issue."

Mikulski's jump into the paper-trail camp came a day after she had difficulty registering her vote on a touch-screen unit being demonstrated at the Takoma Park Folk Festival. Although she eventually was able to submit her choice, the experience affirmed "the idea that there needs to be a paper trail," a Mikulski spokesman told The Baltimore Sun. The incident touched off an episode in which a volunteer election worker refused to return the machine and arranged for it to be examined by an expert hired by CBS News at the offices of TrueVotemd.org.

Aside from such high-spirited goings-on, state political parties in the metropolitan area have tried to stand aloof from the debate.

"We are following the lead of the legislature and the governor," said Maryland Democratic Party Executive Director Josh White. "We're sympathetic but we feel there's no reason to call for a halt to the use of the machines." Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Deborah Martinez said she has not heard "much of an uproar" from constituents.

Laura Bland, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said that the party is concerned about touch-screen technology, but "we have every confidence in the State Board of Elections." Virginia Republican Party spokesman Shawn Smith said that the subject "is not something we have taken a position on or focused on."

The Republican National Committee also has taken no official position, said spokeswoman Christine Iverson. Tony Welch, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, said that the party's platform calls for voting systems that are accessible to all voters and independently audited. "We know that the [electronic] machines are going to be in use this election, so our focus is to make sure that voters are educated in how to use the machines, making sure that election officials are properly trained as well and making sure that the machines are tested," Welch said.

The Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards campaigns did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Taking a firm position on touch-screen voting can produce touchy reactions among influential voting blocs.

Some of the biggest supporters are the disabled, who welcome the machines because they come outfitted with a variety of devices that allow nearly everyone to vote unassisted, and more importantly, in private.

James Gashel, executive director of strategic initiatives at the National Federation for the Blind, testified in favor of touch-screen machines in court last month in defense of the Maryland state elections board. "If we're going to have accessible paper trails, then they need to have accessible information for blind people as well," said Gashel, a resident of Baltimore who said that he has never had the ability to vote without help from someone else.

On the other side are groups representing minorities, arguing that touch-screen voting without a paper trail could make it easier for a corrupt elections official to make those votes disappear. "We are concerned about the fact that this is not a tried-and-true system," said Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. "What we are concerned about is voter confidence."

In the University of Utah survey, black voters' attitudes about voting technology diverged significantly from whites', with 52.2 percent favoring electronic methods, while putting optical-scan systems below punch cards. They were also more concerned about unintentional failures than fraud.

Some of the companies whose machines will be used in the Washington area said that they are developing versions of their machines that can produce paper records that voters can see.

"We are going to provide whatever our customers need," said Michelle Shafer, spokeswoman for Austin, Texas-based Hart InterCivic, whose eSlate machine is used by Alexandria.

Alfie Charles, spokesman for Oakland, Calif.-based Sequoia, said its AVC Edge machines in Nevada already are being used in early voting with paper trails and that the results have been good so far. The printers, he said, add an extra $800 onto the cost of a $3,200 machine.

Diebold spokesman David Bear said that the company is working on prototypes, but added that it is a solution for a problem that has not been proven. "There is no entry point for someone to hack the system," he said. "It's like saying you could hack into my clock radio."

Only Human

All the wrangling that has taken place over electronic voting the past year has pointed out one inescapable conclusion, many observers say: Touch-screen machines may not be the ideal solution to voting error and fraud, but their weaknesses are simply the latest variation in a process that has never been completely secure.

"I think most Americans are very naive about the potential for fraud," said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who authored a bill calling for federal standards to govern how electronic voting machines are used. "They think that went out with the Pendergast machine and Tammany Hall, but with computers, if you get the right person involved, there's always a possibility of fraud."

Gashel noted that older voting systems have experienced problems of their own. "We're not convinced that [touch-screen voting] is a problem to the extent that it is with some other systems," he said. "I know that computers can make mistakes but mechanical mechanisms can make mistakes too."

Then there is the human factor.

"We have about 8,000 election officials in the country who'll be supervising 193,000 polling places and about 1.5 million Americans who are going to serve their fellow citizens as poll workers," said Paul DeGregorio, one of the commissioners on the Elections Assistance Commission. "We're still dealing with human beings who run elections."

R. Michael Alvarez, a California Institute of Technology professor and co-director of an electronic voting research project run by Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said 4 million to 6 million votes were lost nationally in the 2000 presidential election because of a variety of problems. According to a 2001 report issued by the Caltech-MIT group, as many as 2 million of those votes were lost because of faulty ballots or equipment problems, but up to 3 million were lost due to registration mix-ups, with another possible 1 million votes lost through botched polling-place operations.

Alvarez, who co-authored the Utah study with Hall, said electronic voting could cause problems, but it could also prove to be more accurate than any other voting method. "We're going to be running a massive experiment on Nov. 2," he said.

Linda Schade, of course, does not want to participate in this kind of experiment, especially one that will be done live. On Election Day, she says she'll send her TrueVotemd troops out in a statewide pollwatching effort. "You're talking about a crisis in voter confidence, a crisis in accountability in terms of the certainty of elections results," she said. "That's a big problem."