Building a Better Paper Trail

Will printed receipts ease our worries about computerized ballots?

Joe Schoenmann

Who knows what lurks in the bytes of the machine? Only the company knows.

That is, only the company that mass-produces computerized voting machines. Combine the secrecy of these companies—which refuse to let outside auditors examine software to ensure that the machines work correctly—with the debacle that was the 2000 presidential election, and it's easy to see why voters nationwide are worried about the computerization of voting rights.

The Internet is loaded with websites devoted to the voting-machine glitches (a term computer experts hate because it pushes potentially serious technical problems into the realm of "cute"): A machine in Fairfax, Virginia, that systematically refused to register votes for a Republican candidate; machines in Alameda County, California, that were used without federal certification; in Broward County, Florida, scene of the 2000 Bush-Gore recount mess, officials spent $17.2 million on new machines and now have serious doubts about the machines' accuracy.

And in November, a lawsuit against Deibold—a leading manufacturer of computerized voting machines—to stop the company from issuing "specious legal threats" to website operators who publish information about flaws in Diebold's system.

Then there was this zinger: An August 14 vow in a memo by Walden O'Dell, Diebold CEO, to help "Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."

East Coast, West Coast, the Deep South—and now, Nevada. This state is leading the way in what civil libertarians see as a response to the erosion of the voting system. Last week, Secretary of State Dean Heller, responding to criticisms from citizens and groups in Northern Nevada—70 percent of the voters live in Clark County but the state machinery and capitol reside up north—announced that by January 1, 2006, Nevada voters will use computerized systems. But that's not the most important thing Heller did. Clark County, after all, implemented computerization about a decade ago. And though there were some initial problems, the system used on thousands of machines has been declared virtually infallible. Fault free. Picture perfect. A well-oiled machine. ("Looks Good On Paper," May 8, 2003, Las Vegas Weekly.)

So you know something's got to be wrong.

As it turns out, the single biggest problem is that Sequoia Voting Systems, which provides Clark County with its machines and from which the state will purchase more machines, doesn't allow anyone to inspect their software. You voted for Bush in 2000? How do you know?

Because the computer says it's so.

End of argument.

Heller has gone that argument one better: He ordered that all machines by 2006 be equipped with printers. With that, voters will cast their votes on the computer screen; a printer will jot down their votes and show it to them beneath Plexiglas, then the vote will be stored. In case of a recount or other election questions, the paper ballots will be there to recount.

In the past, a recount took place like this: Someone pushed some buttons and the computer spewed out the votes it says were cast.

Trust me, the computer said.

That's what Larry Lomax, Clark County registrar of voters, says he's done all along. He's not thrilled with the "administrative nightmare" he believes the new paper ballot receipt is going to cause. Aside from the hours to be spent hand-sorting paper ballots in the event of a recount, the county will have to store 7,300 rolls of tape for about two years after every election.

"We prepare these (machines), and I know how hard we work to make sure it's accurate," Lomax says. "(The printers are) not needed. For us it's going to be an administrative nightmare."

What he can't discount, however, is the "public demand around the country" for some measure of security when it comes to the vote. "Because, I guess to be fair, of a blunt distrust in the government," he says.

"We got a ton of e-mail from voters," says Steve George, spokesman for the secretary of state's office, explaining the state's move to ease mistrust of the system. "And we'll be getting those printers as fast as the manufacturer can supply them."

Lomax says he'd like to get 74 of the county's touch-screen machines attached to verifiable printers by November 2004. The remaining 2,186 machines are older and likely won't have the printer technology until 2006. Cost per printer is about $500. Most of that will be paid with federal grants from the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

 Nevada was the first to pull the trigger on the ballot systems, although moves in that direction are taking hold nationwide. In Congress, Rep. Rush Holt ((D-NJ) introduced the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003 that would mandate a voter verification system while banning the use of secret software codes.

In Wisconsin, the state Elections Board voted to "decertify all of its self-auditing voting machines," expressing misgivings about the lack of paper ballots. The New York State Assembly passed the Voting Systems Standards Act of 2003, calling for a "voter verified permanent paper record" in the ballot box.

Are we feeling secure yet? Then here's a little fly in the ointment, courtesy of The Department of Defense recently spent $22 million to hire Accenture, an arm of the former Arthur Andersen accounting firm, to oversee its computerized voting for military personnel and Americans overseas. If Arthur Andersen isn't worrisome enough after the company's starring role in the Enron debacle, there's this: Accenture, according to the site, has obtained, "the firm that provided Internet voting services that were disrupted by the Slammer worm during a Toronto election on January 23, 2003."

But that's the military. By 2006, Nevadans should be free of the aggravation, the mistrust, the worry that goes along with a mindless bank of machines telling them, "Trust us."

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