Chasing The Paper Trail

After the debacle of the 2000 election in Florida over hanging chads, a search began for a technological solution to voting problems and irregularities that would ensure that votes cast would actually be counted. The answer to some came in the form of touchscreen voting technology. But what began as a technological fix to voting irregularities may open pandora's box and potentially undermine the voting process and democracy itself. Now many Americans worry that computerized voting will allow the erasure and theft of elections all with the click of a button.

Americans need to know that computerized voting will increase their faith and the chances that their vote will actually be counted. Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey (D-12th) believes that the solution is for touchscreen voting machines to print a paper receipt that the voter sees. If there are problems, such as what happened in Florida in 2000, the paper trail is what is used for a recount. We spoke to Congressman Rush Holt about the legislation he has introduced to protect voter confidence and require a paper trail on all computerized voting machines. It is perhaps one of the most important issues facing our democracy in an election year.

Describe the federal legislation that you are proposing that would regulate electronic voting machines.

Rep. Rush Holt: The principal thing my bill would do is to require a voter-verified parallel paper record for votes. The bill is called the Voter Confidence Act because it's trying to address a real concern of mine and of many people around the country. When people nowadays say: "I'm not going to vote because my vote doesn't count," they not only mean that special interests overweigh their vote, but they also sometimes believe that their vote won't be counted.

Many jurisdictions are buying electronic voting machines in states and counties. They offer real advantages such as accessibility, particularly for people with physical handicaps, convenience of use, and that sort of thing. People who are visually impaired can have audio guidance through the voting process with these electronic machines. And, for the first time in history, they can vote unaided. And there are other advantages to the electronic machines.

Nevertheless, they have one major disadvantage, which is if there is an error somewhere between the casting of the vote and the recording of the vote, no one will ever know. So if the software is flawed, the computer doesn't do what the voter intends, and no one will ever know. That's why it's really important that there be an opportunity for each voter to verify her or his own vote.

My bill would require a paper record that the voter gets to see. And the voter can say, "Yup, that's my vote." And then when the vote is submitted electronically, that paper record is also stored at the polling place. And that is the vote of record, so that if there is a recount, it will be with that paper record that the voter has personally verified.

In other words, if there was an audit or a recount, it would be based on the paper receipt?

RH: That's right. And as it is now, a recount is meaningless with the electronic machines. I mean, the electronic machine will, for all eternity, say exactly what it did five minutes after the polls closed, and if there were a software error, no one would be the wiser. My bill calls for this paper record.

I avoid the use of the word "receipt" because this is not something that the voter gets to take and keep. For one thing, that would open the door to fraud and vote sale, and various problems. So this is a record that is available for audit. My bill further requires that in one-half of one percent of the machines, there will be a random spot check audit.

There are two circumstances in which there'd be a recount: 1) If a judge or a losing candidate calls for a recount; 2) One-half of one percent of all voting machines would be subject to a spot check on election day. And if there were a software problem -- whether it's accidental, innocent or malicious -- that would surely be quickly uncovered with that number of spot checks.

One of the worries from computer electronic voting or touchscreen voting is ensuring the integrity of the election. It's an important perception issue that voters believe that when they cast a vote, their vote will actually be counted. Based on your study and research with your staff, what specific risks does electronic voting pose to future American voters, besides the obvious of just having a complete erasure of votes or other manipulation? Have you found other glitches in some of the software programs that have been proposed?

RH: A number of software engineers have looked through and investigated software that has been used in voting machines. And they've determined that it is rife with errors -- mostly security shortcomings that would make it easy for someone to doctor it and essentially steal votes.

Now I would make the point that you don't have to buy into any of the conspiracy theories about a particular voting machine company is corrupt or politically biased, or anything of that sort. You don't need to buy into any conspiracy theory to see the need for the voter to verify his/her vote. By having a parallel paper trail that the voter herself or himself verifies, it removes any uncertainty. There will be these two trails that can be checked against each other. So you can have the convenience and accessibility of the electronic machines, and have the assurance that each vote is what each voter intended.

What are opponents saying about your bill? What arguments are they using to urge opposition to what you are proposing?

RH: One of the first arguments was that this was a partisan bill -- that it's payback for Florida. There is nothing partisan either in my motivation in introducing the bill or in the language of the bill. And I'm pleased to say that eventually a number of Republicans recognized this and have now signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. Other arguments are that this would open up all the various debates about voting such as same-day registration, and purging of lists from voters who haven't voted recently, and allowing prisoners to vote, etc. There are a lot of issues related to voting that are yet to be debated and resolved. I would argue this problem can be solved without having to raise those other outstanding issues, and we can deal with those concerns later or in a different bill. For right now, I think we should keep our focus on specifically creating a paper trail for electronic voting and get it passed.

For a long time, the argument was that this technology doesn't exist. And I said, "Oh, come on. We're just talking about a printer here." Of course the technology exists. And now the voting machine manufacturers have demonstrated that they can easily build and market these machines. They are now on the market, so that argument has gone away.

It seems that one of the hurdles that you're having to overcome -- besides getting more co-sponsors in the House and getting your bill passed -- is, again, the public perception problem. For example, Wally O'Dell, who's the CEO of Diebold, an electronic voting machine company, said in Ohio at a fundraiser, "I'm committed to helping Ohio deliver the electoral votes to the President next year." This statement is from the CEO of Diebold, one of the leading touchscreen electronic voting companies. Do you think the American public wants to take this big step into voting with electronic screens? Do you think that, even if this legislation passes, that American voters would still have confidence in the system?

RH: Well, this CEO's comments were unfortunate and ill-considered at best. And he has given voters one more reason to want to be able to verify their vote. But my bill was introduced before he said that. And really, the need for this bill, the justification for it, and the explanation of my bill is really independent of what you think about any particular company, or what you think about all of the companies, or without considering any nefarious plot.

It is just a simple fact that people feel more comfortable voting if they know that their vote will be counted properly. And the way they can know that is by actually verifying it themselves. I guess I wouldn't say that the statement of the head of Diebold Manufacturing is irrelevant to this issue. I would say it gives voters one more reason to want to verify their votes.

Do you think your bill, should it pass, will be implemented by the 2004 general election? Is that logistically possible?

RH: It is something that I think we would have to have hearings about. It was nearly a year ago that I wrote this bill. And so when I wrote it, I was convinced that it could easily be implemented by 2004. It's not so easy now, but I'm not sure it's impossible.

One of the criticisms about your bill is that it doesn't get at the root of the problem, which is proper auditing. That is, if there's a problem, how can the system be audited in the way that other systems are, such as lotteries?

RH: This legislation I'm proposing does demand that voting machines are audited. As I say, in one-half of one percent, on every election day for every federal election, these machines will be checked, and the electronic vote will be compared against the paper ballot vote. If there's any software error, it would quickly come to light. And, furthermore, my bill calls for public domain software, so that the software in any of these marketed machines would be available for computer scientists or the public to inspect.

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