They Said It Couldn't Be Done

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Sat Sep 18 11:22:40 EDT 2004


The New York Times
September 18, 2004

They Said It Couldn't Be Done
any computer scientists insist that electronic voting machines will be
trustworthy only when they produce paper receipts that can be audited. But
supporters of electronic voting have long argued that doing so would be
extremely difficult, if not impossible. Nevada proved the naysayers wrong
this month, running the first statewide election in which electronic voting
machines produced paper records of votes cast. Election officials across
the country now have no excuse not to provide systems that voters can trust.

There is a growing body of evidence indicating that electronic voting
machines are vulnerable to tampering and to software glitches that can skew
the vote totals. The best safeguard is a voter-verifiable paper trail,
receipts that are printed out during the voting process. Voters can view
the receipts to check them against the choices they made on the computer
screens. Each receipt remains under glass and, after the vote is cast,
falls into a locked box. The receipts can be used in a recount or an audit
to check the accuracy of the machine tallies.

 The main argument against voter-verifiable paper trails is that they are
impractical. At a May meeting of the federal Election Assistance
Commission, and again at the National Association of State Election
Directors' summer conference, local election officials denounced the
campaign for voter-verifiable paper records. At both events, critics waved
a receipt about three feet long, saying one that big would be needed for
Los Angeles County's lengthy ballot.

But Nevada's secretary of state, Dean Heller, has always believed that
paper records are practical, and this month he proved it. Primary voters
across the state cast votes on machines that printed out paper records, and
none of the nightmarish possibilities came to pass. The poll workers had no
trouble with the technology. And election officials had spare machines and
printers on hand in the few cases when printers jammed or had other
mechanical problems.

 Conditions in Nevada favored success. The turnout was light, and the
ballot was short enough that the receipt was only about five inches long.
But there is no reason to believe that paper trails could not work in any
election. Alfred Charles, a vice president of Sequoia Voting Systems, which
made the machines used in Nevada, says that if the receipts are done
properly, listing only the candidates and referendum choices that the voter
actually selects, length should not be a problem, and it is unlikely that
even Los Angeles County would require anything like three-foot-long paper

Even if Nevada's approach - attaching printers to touch-screen machines -
had failed, there would still be other ways to provide a paper record.
Probably the best solution is the optical scan system used now in many
jurisdictions, where voters mark paper ballots that are then read by
computers. In optical scan systems, the paper ballots the voters fill out
can be retained and used as a check against the machines' tallies.

Nevada has taken the lead on paper trails not only in its own elections,
but also in Congress. Its senators - John Ensign, a Republican, and Harry
Reid, a Democrat - have co-sponsored the bipartisan Voting Integrity and
Verification Act, one of a number of pending bills that would require that
all electronic voting machines produce voter-verifiable paper trails.
Congress should pass such legislation right away so all Americans can have
the same confidence in their elections as Nevadans now have.

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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