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Voting Technology

Ballots deserve a paper backup

By Kim Alexander
Submitted to the California Journal
April 12, 2004

A version of this piece is appearing in the May 2004 edition of the California Journal, available on newsstands April 29.

As the presidential election draws near, voters in California and across the United States are already wondering if a fair count is possible. Unfortunately, their concerns are well-founded. The United States is poised to transact 25 percent of its ballots this November on paperless, computerized voting systems which produce results that cannot be verified.

In California, the percentage of electronic ballots is even higher; 40 percent of California voters reside in counties that use inauditable voting systems. The computerized voting systems used in California and throughout the country are paperless -- the machines do not produce a paper record of the voter’s ballot that the voter can inspect and verify before leaving the polls. Without this paper audit trail, there is no way to verify that the final vote count is accurate. The software that runs these voting systems is proprietary. In essence, we have outsourced elections and handed the “keys to the kingdom” over to a handful of private companies.

A walk through the life of an electronic ballot shows just how perfectly everything must work in a typical computerized voting system for the final results to be accurate.

First, the voter casts a ballot on a computerized voting machine, which must correctly record and store that electronic ballot. All the machines are connected together at the end of the voting day and the ballots are transferred into one machine, where they are stored onto a cartridge. Pollworkers return the cartridges to a vote collection center where they are downloaded. Next the electronic ballots are transferred to the central counting center at the county election office, where they are tabulated using vote counting software. The tabulated data is then used to generate reports of election results.

Each of these steps must be glitch-free and perfectly programmed. Each step of the way every electronic ballot must be protected. If an electronic ballot is lost or altered along the way it would be difficult to detect and impossible to determine what the correct ballot should be. And even if everything appears to go perfectly, we still can’t verify the results.

Computerized voting in California has hardly been glitch-free. Thousands of California voters were disenfranchised on March 2 due to technical problems with computerized voting systems.

In Alameda County, problems with Diebold’s “smart card” encoders impacted 186 of the county’s 763 polling places, preventing voters from casting ballots on touchscreens during part of the day. In San Diego County, smart card encoder problems impacted 573 of the county's 1,611 polling places. In Orange County, thousands of voters were given the wrong electronic ballots; many were unable to cast votes in contests for which they were eligible, while others were allowed to vote in districts in which they did not reside.

While the voting problems in Orange, Alameda and San Diego counties garnered the most attention in the weeks following the election, many other counties that use computerized voting systems also had their share of problems.

In San Bernardino County, officials waited three hours for their new Sequoia vote counting computer to process the results before resorting to shutting down the computer and starting over. In San Joaquin County, a public radio reporter who selected a polling place at random to interview voters using the county’s new Diebold touchscreen voting system arrived to find voters standing around, unable to vote because the machine being used to program smart cards was inoperable. In Merced County, ES&S machines that had been delivered to one city had been programmed with the ballots of another.

Three counties that use touchscreens in polling places have also encountered recent problems getting their paper absentee ballots correctly counted. In Napa County, officials discovered that their Sequoia optical scanners had not been properly calibrated to detect the various types of inks with which Primary ballots were marked. In San Diego, Diebold’s software attributed several thousand votes cast on absentee paper ballots for Democratic Presidential primary candidate John Kerry to Dick Gephardt. Votes in the U.S. Senate Republican primary were also miscounted. Last October, Alameda discovered that Diebold’s optical scan software attributed thousands of votes to a Socialist Recall candidate that should have gone to Cruz Bustamante.

We know about these miscounts because the counties were able to compare the paper absentee ballots to the software-counted results. When the numbers didn’t add up, the counties were able to troubleshoot, diagnose and correct the vote counting problems.

Absentee ballots typically account for around 25 percent of a county’s total vote. For the remaining 75 percent of the ballots that were cast on electronic voting machines, there is no audit trail the registrars can use to verify the accuracy of the software vote count.

Officials from Alameda, San Diego and Napa were quick to assure the public that while they experienced vote counting problems with their paper absentee ballots, the vote count for their electronic ballots was accurate. But the truth is they really can’t be sure and have no way to prove it, because they have no paper record of electronic ballots that they can use to verify the accuracy of the software-counted electronic votes.

Whether such vote counting errors are accidental glitches or intentional efforts to tamper with election results is unknown. What we do know is that glitches have and will continue to occur in elections, regardless of what voting system is used.

Some registrars are concerned that printing a paper record of electronic ballots at polling places will cause difficulties for pollworkers who might have to deal with paper jams and malfunctioning printers. But pollworkers are already having to deal with malfunctioning machines and smart card encoders. It’s a mistake to think we can put high tech equipment into our low-tech polling places in the first place.

Our polling places are located in garages, churches, fire stations -- locations that don’t always have an adequate power supply or provide security for machines delivered several days prior to the election and in some cases are left behind for days after.

As we saw on March 2, putting 21st century equipment into a 19th century process is a recipe for disaster. As long as we have low tech polling places, staffed by volunteers with limited training, we need low-tech voting systems.

That electronic voting is risky and unverifiable has become widely understood over the past year. The question now is what will California and other states do about it?

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley was the first state election chief in the nation to announce last November that he will require a voter verified paper audit trail for all electronic ballots by 2006. In the months following his announcement, the Secretaries of State from Nevada, Washington and Missouri followed his lead. Legislation to require a voter verified paper trail is pending in many states and in Congress as well.

In California, State Senators Don Perata (D-Oakland), who chairs the Senate Elections Committee and Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), the committee’s vice-chair have introduced SB 1438, which would require a voter verified paper trail by 2005. In response to the widespread problems voters experienced on March 2, Perata and Johnson have also introduced SB 1723, which would decertify paperless electronic voting machines and prevent their use this November.

Kevin Shelley is also considering decertification. Prior to the March Primary, Shelley’s office was already investigating Diebold, after learning that some counties used uncertified versions of Diebold's software in the October 7, 2003 Recall election. Preliminary results from the investigation revealed that all 17 counties using Diebold voting equipment were using uncertified, and in three counties, untested versions of Diebold software during the October and November elections.

If the Secretary of State or the California Legislature act to prohibit paperless electronic voting in California this November, the 14 counties that purchased these systems have other alternatives. All of these counties purchased and are using paper-based optical scan systems to facilitate absentee voting. Expanding the use of these voting systems is simply a matter of printing more ballots. There is no additional equipment that needs to be purchased and fielded in polling places for an optical scan system -- all you need are paper ballots.

Though optical scan voting systems are far more secure, transparent and economical than electronic systems, the paper-based systems are under attack by disability rights groups, who have sued four California counties that use optical scan systems. These groups want touchscreens because the machines allow disabled and sight-impaired voters to cast a secret ballot without assistance.

Though the federal “Help America Vote Act” requires one device in each polling place by 2006 that provides disabled voters the ability to vote independently and in private, advocacy groups for the disabled in California and elsewhere are trying to pressure states and counties through litigation to act sooner than the federal law requires. Groups that advocate for the rights of minority language voters also are pushing for touchscreens because they can be programmed to display ballots in multiple languages.

These are important advantages, but they should not come at the expense of security. And they shouldn't have to. We can have modern voting systems that are both accessible and secure.

Secretary of State Kevin Shelley has already introduced draft standards for an accessible voter verified paper trail, and it’s possible that some of the existing touchscreens can be retrofitted with the paper trail in time for November. Two vendors -- Avante and Accupoll -- have already gained federal approval for touchscreen systems that provide a voter verified paper trail. Sequoia’s new paper trail feature is currently under review by federal testing authorities.
ES&S recently obtained the rights to market a voting device that enables sight-impaired voters to cast a secret ballot on a paper-based, optical scan system.

These are encouraging developments. But if these options aren’t ready by November, the safest thing California can do is put our touchscreens away until they produce results that can be verified.

Kim Alexander is president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization advancing the responsible use of technology to improve the democratic process, online at


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This page was first published on April 26, 2004 | Last updated on January 27, 2006
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