Paper or Plastic?

In the search for solutions to California's voting problems, 'modern' touchscreen systems pose new set of worries

Op-Ed by Kim Alexander in the San Diego Union Tribune, October 20, 2002

As the next election approaches, many California voters may be wondering if the equipment they'll be using on Nov. 5 is reliable. Voters who cast ballots on old-fashioned, Votomatic-style punch cards will be checking for chad, while those who vote on new, "modern" touchscreen voting systems may well be checking for a paper trail.

There won't be one.

That's because touchscreen voting, as is currently certified in California, does not require there to be a paper trail. "Modern" means paperless  no more ballots inserted into a locked box, just data stored on a machine.

While many election officials are hesitant to purchase such equipment, several counties already have, including Riverside, Alameda and Plumas. Others may have no alternative. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that California must eliminate the use of Votomatic-style punch card voting systems by 2004.

Proposition 41, passed by California voters last March, provides $200 million in state funds to help pay for new equipment. Though the measure does require counties to maintain a paper record of ballots cast on touchscreens, it does not require that record to be generated at the time the voter votes to ensure that printed records reflect voter intent as opposed to, say, a computer malfunction.

There aren't many choices for the nine counties currently using Votomatics. While paper-based systems such as optical scan, in which a computer reads marks on paper, work well in many California counties, they are not considered practical to administer in large counties like San Diego and Los Angeles.

Counties that purchase touchscreen machines, which typically cost $3,000 apiece, will spend millions to deploy several in each polling place countywide. Just getting these machines to polling places is likely to be a huge logistical feat; many models are heavy and cannot be transported by poll workers.

Computerized voting is a 21st century solution trying to fit into a 19th century system. If we are to truly modernize our voting process, it's going to take more than just switching out one machine for another.

Ours is a quaint, decentralized and highly inefficient voting process. Each election it's a struggle to locate and set up thousands of polling places across the state and recruit enough poll workers to staff them. Meanwhile, a growing percentage of Californians opt to vote by mail and overall turnout declines.

It doesn't have to be this way.

We could switch from precinct-level voting to county-wide voting and set up temporary, high-tech voting centers in numerous public places such as post offices, libraries, shopping malls and community centers. These voting centers can be staffed by professionally trained public employees, with poll workers serving as volunteers. Voters could cast ballots on computers that also print a paper version of the ballot that a voter can verify before it goes into a locked box to be counted alongside the digital ballots. The centers can be networked with the county election office to ensure the database of registered voters who have cast ballots is routinely updated to prevent fraud.

This kind of wholesale change is needed before we usher computers into the voting process. Some people think we're ready for paperless elections and suggest voting on touchscreens is like using an ATM. However, the way touchscreens are currently used is fundamentally different from ATMs in several ways.

Yes, the voting transaction is supposed to be secret, but your bank transaction  usually a very private matter  is known to your bank. The voting transaction gives nothing of record or value back at the end of the process, while the ATM transaction gives you money and/or a paper receipt that can be used to verify your transaction if needed. The ATM transaction, because it is not secret and because it is backed up both by a paper trail and a printed statement, can be recovered if lost; digital ballots cannot.

In Florida touchscreens were deployed in several counties for the state's recent primary election. While it was a smooth transition in some counties, in others, most notably Miami Dade and Broward, it was another fiasco. In 60 Miami Dade precincts the number of votes cast on touchscreens indicated only a 10 percent turnout while the average state turnout was over 30 percent. Even if the election workers succeeded in "harvesting" lost ballots out of those Miami Dade machines, it's unlikely voters will feel confident that the final count was accurate.

It seems reckless to experiment with paperless voting transactions in the one transaction that is most integral to living in a democracy. Few people would use ATMs if the content of their transaction was secret from their bank and there was no paper trail verifying the transaction. Yet this is exactly what we are asking voters to do with paperless touchscreen voting systems.

This is not to suggest that we send voters away from the polls with receipts of their votes in their pockets; such evidence could result in vote selling and coercion. Nor is it a suggestion that we forfeit the secret ballot. But perhaps we can take a cue from the banks that spent years developing ATMS before they figured out what kind of system would engender customer confidence.

The paper-based voting system, though less efficient, has many strengths that the touchscreen systems do not have. Paper-based systems allow voters to make their choices on a piece of paper that is then inserted into a locked box and exists as physical proof of how they actually voted. This kind of security is transparent and understandable to even the most unsophisticated of voters.

With touchscreen voting, the technology that secures the election is not in plain sight as is the case with a locked ballot box, but instead is hidden from voters inside voting machines, the workings of which are beyond the comprehension of most people. The software that runs voting systems certified in California is proprietary and not available for public inspection.

Touchscreen machines with a paper backup are not readily available. One system was verified Oct. 13 but will only be used for an early-voting pilot program in Sacramento. Most touchscreen manufacturers say they can produce a paper trail but this feature is not fully developed on most systems and typically is not requested by election officials.

First-time touchscreen voters often report that they like the machines and find them easy to use. But it's not enough to ask if people like the machines the bigger question is, do they trust the machines? Do they have confidence that their votes will be counted? Will they trust the results in a recount if conducting one is simply a matter of pressing a button?

I think not. In San Bernardino County's November 2001 local elections, the vote tabulation software used to count punch cards malfunctioned. The software error was not discovered until after the election results were released. Once discovered and corrected, the punch card ballots were tabulated a second time, and the outcome of 13 contests changed; candidates who were told they won had in fact lost.

However, San Bernardino's voters were not content to accept the computer-counted results, and insisted the county conduct a hand recount of the punch card ballots, which it did. If there had been no paper ballots to count, it is doubtful the voters who supported the losing candidates in San Bernardino would have accepted the revised results. They might have instead filed a lawsuit, or insisted on a revote, or maybe they just wouldn't show up to vote the next time around.

The vendors and election officials who deploy touchscreen machines seem to be asking the voters to "trust us," but many people will not trust something they cannot see or understand. Citizens in a democracy should be expected to exercise healthy skepticism about government, not blind faith, especially when it comes to elections, which we know from past experience are subject to glitches and manipulation.

Meanwhile, Congress is poised to enact sweeping election reform legislation that will, among other things, provide hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize U.S. voting equipment. The federal legislation also will provide funding for voting technology research and development as well as programs to test new voting systems and equipment.

Unfortunately, such research and testing may not help California. The clock is ticking and counties are under a court order to replace Votomatics before the next statewide election. That's why it's crucial for California voters to pay attention and share their views with their county election director and county supervisor. Now is the time to speak up and ask questions, before counties spend millions of dollars on new equipment.

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This page was first published on November 1, 2002 | Last updated on November 1, 2002
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