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E-voting states brace for problems

Nearly 30 percent of US voters will cast their 2004 ballots electronically

US voting-security advocates are bracing for e-voting problems in the upcoming general election that could rival those in Florida during the 2000 presidential race.

Advocates aren't worried about hanging chads on paper ballots, which caused thousands of votes to go uncounted in the 2000 election. Instead, a number of voting-security groups are focused on the electronic voting machines that have replaced paper ballots in many states.

Counties in 27 states, including swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania will use direct electronic recording machines, accounting for about 30 percent of US voters on 2 November.

Interviews with local elections officials who will be overseeing the use of electronic voting equipment on Election Day suggest that most dismiss the controversy over electronic voting technology and are hopeful about the promise of the new machines to allow elections to run more smoothly.

But a flood of new voters could combine with a potpourri of new voting technology and the United States's scattershot system for running and managing elections to create confusion.

Voting security advocates have raised dozens of concerns about direct electronic recording machines. Among the complaints about DREs: Some of the back-end vote-counting tabulators can easily be hacked; some smart cards that provide access to the machines can be faked; and votes can be lost when machines crash, as computers sometimes do.

In short, groups such as BlackBoxVoting and the Electronic Frontier Foundation complain that DREs don't give voters any indication of what's going on inside the machine. Most DRE vendors keep the inner workings of their machines proprietary, and critics complain that the DREs are in essence a "black box”.

The EFF has focused on what it calls the lack of an audit capability in DREs. Most machines cannot print a so-called voter-verified paper trail, so when a politician demands a recount, most DREs will simply spit out the same set of disputed numbers again and again.

"At the end of the day, you really have to trust that the design of the system was such that it's doing what the vendors are telling you it's doing," said Matt Zimmerman, an EFF attorney focused on e-voting.

"It doesn't prove anything to me for you to say, 'We can recount it.' What they really mean is, 'We're going to press the print button again on these machines, and by magic, we're going to have the same outcome,'" he says.

BlackBoxVoting and VerifiedVoting have lined up thousands of volunteers to check for problems with DREs on Election Day. At least one lawsuit still pending, filed by US Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, seeks to stop his state from using DREs without adding a paper trail.

Supporters of DREs defend them as a much better alternative to the paper ballots that caused so much confusion in Florida in 2000. E-voting machines offer no less transparency than old paper balloting systems, argued Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade association of technology vendors.

To spur the adoption of updated voting technology and to address problems with paper ballots that sullied the 2000 presidential election, the US Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

The legislation provided $3.9bn (£2.2bn) for state and local governments to improve elections, including $325m (£180m) to replace punch-card and lever voting machines.

But Zimmerman and other critics complain that many states rushed to spend the money on new DREs without considering security concerns. "What we want to know is, what are these machines actually doing?" he said. "How are these things programmed? Are there errors in the programming?"

The EFF and other critics of DREs have detailed several past problems with DREs, including machines that have apparently mismarked ballots, and a special election in Florida in January where the machines did not record votes from 134 voters even though there was just a single race in the election.

To help assuage concerns of lost votes, several groups questioning the security of DREs have called for "voter-verified paper trials" – a paper printout of each voter's choices that the voter can check before leaving the polls. Advocates of such a paper trial say it's the only way for voters to ensure that their intention was accurately recorded by the machine, and that those documents are needed to have a valid recount of DRE votes.

Only one state, Nevada, is requiring such a system for this November's election. California will require paper trails on all DREs by 2006.

Election officials using DREs say the machines are much easier for voters to use than older voting systems, and they will avoid the sort of problems that plagued Florida in 2000 where election officials spent weeks engaged in a manual recount of faulty punch-cards and where voters were confused by paper ballot designs.

While the systems may not show voters a printed receipt of each ballot, many of the newer systems do save a digital record of each electronic ballot cast, which can be retrieved in a "manual audit" and printed to get a picture of the exact votes cast on a particular DRE machine.

Paul Roberts and Elizabeth Heichler in Boston contributed to this story.


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