Demand Grows to Require Paper Trails for Electronic Votes

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Sun May 23 10:50:09 EDT 2004


The New York Times

May 23, 2004

Demand Grows to Require Paper Trails for Electronic Votes

ASHINGTON, May 22 - A coalition of computer scientists, voter groups and
state officials, led by California's secretary of state, Kevin Shelley, is
trying to force the makers of electronic voting machines to equip those
machines with voter-verifiable paper trails.

Following the problems of the 2000 election in Florida, a number of states
and hundreds of counties rushed to dump their punch card ballot systems and
to buy the electronic touch screens. Election Data Services, a consulting
firm that specializes in election administration, estimates that this
November 50 million Americans - about 29 percent of the electorate - may be
voting on touch screens, up from 12 percent in 2000.

But in the last year election analysts have documented so many
malfunctions, including the disappearance of names from the ballot, and
computer experts have shown that the machines are so vulnerable to hackers,
that critics have organized to counter the rush toward touch screens with a
move to require paper trails.

Paper trails - ballot receipts - would let voters verify that they had cast
their votes as they intended and let election officials conduct recounts in
close races.

Not everyone agrees that paper trails are necessary, or even advisable.
Numerous local election officials - the ones who actually conduct elections
- argue that paper trails could create worse problems than the perceived
ones that they are intended to cure. They warn of paper jams, voter
confusion and delays in the voting booth while voters read their receipts.

There are no national standards to help resolve the disputes. The federal
commission that Congress created after 2000 to guide states is behind
schedule, and the research body that was supposed to set standards for
November 2004 has not even been appointed. So states, prompted by voter
organizations, are taking matters into their own hands.

 Nevada, which is using touch screens in all its voting precincts this
November, has become the first state to require the manufacturer to attach
printers in time for Election Day.

California is requiring voter-verified paper trails for any electronic
machines that counties in the state buy after November; for this November,
it has banned touch-screen machines unless counties meet certain security
standards. Three counties are suing the state to overturn the ban and a
fourth has said it plans to use the touch screens anyway.

Mr. Shelley said he was requiring counties to allow voters to vote on paper
if they wanted to, even if there were no apparent problems with the touch
screens. "It's a voter-confidence issue," he said in an interview. "It
should be a no-brainer."

More than a dozen other states are considering legislation to require paper
backups, and Congress, which had left the matter on the back burner, is
considering several similar proposals.

"People are demanding this," said Representative Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey
Democrat who has introduced a bill to require that by November, all voters
be able to cast ballots that they can verify. This would entail either
retrofitting touch screens with printers or requiring a county to go back
to a paper-based system like optical-scan equipment or even punch cards.

Election groups, spurred to organize after a report last July from computer
security experts at Johns Hopkins University warned of touch-screen
pitfalls, have encouraged a voter revolt. During the primaries this spring,
groups like the Campaign for Verifiable Voting urged thousands of voters in
various states to cast paper ballots rather than use touch screens without
paper trails.

Unfortunately for voters in Maryland who followed that suggestion, though,
local officials ruled that those paper ballots were invalid and did not
count them.

"The Maryland primary was a very instructive learning experience for all
activists," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California
Voter Foundation, a grass-roots watchdog group in Sacramento that is
helping to organize voter groups across the country.

"There are movements in a lot of states, and we're sharing information,"
she said. She said she took it as a mark of success that 75 percent of the
voting jurisdictions in the country will be using the same equipment in
November as they used in 2000.

"I'd rather have voters vote on punch cards than on an electronic system
that can't be verified," she said.

Ohio is the latest state to hit the paper trail. Earlier this month, Gov.
Bob Taft, a Republican, signed legislation requiring all counties to have
paper trails with their touch-screen machines by November 2006. But the law
also allows counties to use the machines this November without paper trails.

Some officials, like state Senator Teresa Fedor, Democrat of Toledo, said
this made no sense. If a paper trail is so important, she asked, why should
voters go through even one election without them - especially in a state
where the presidential vote could be close. She successfully argued to the
Legislature that Ohio counties should be able to postpone buying the
machines. "There are too many concerns for us to keep a blind eye," she

As a result, elections boards in 31 counties are debating whether to
postpone their purchases. Since Governor Taft signed the bill, 18 have
voted to wait.

"Ohio is the big struggle state right now," said Will Doherty, executive
director of, a group advocating for paper trails.

Doug Chapin of, a clearinghouse for election information
set up by the Pew Charitable Trust, said that Ohio was "rolling the dice"
to see whether paper trails were necessary.

"You can either build a fence around a cliff or put an ambulance in the
valley," he said. "The paper trail is the ambulance in the valley.
Certifying the machines and testing them in the first place to make sure
they are secure is the fence around the cliff."

But even as some states clamor for paper trails, machines equipped to
provide them are scarce.

David L. Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and
founder of, said that models with paper trails had been
tested in only a few counties. And a handful of small manufacturers provide

Officials from several large manufacturers have said that they could
produce paper trails if they were required to, but they have so far
resisted, arguing that they are unnecessary.

If more jurisdictions require them, though, vendors want to be first in
line for the potentially lucrative contracts. Should a big state like New
York, for example, which is considering making paper trails mandatory,
joins California, the industry could probably gear up quickly.

Howard Cramer, vice president for sales at Sequoia Voting Systems, which is
providing Nevada with its touch screens and printers, said that the company
had no worries about the security and accuracy of its touch screens. He
said he saw putting printers in Nevada as a useful experiment because other
jurisdictions will require them, although he said he expected voters to
become so comfortable with touch screens that they would soon drop the fad
for paper trails.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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