updated 12/4/2006 7:09:00 PM ET 2006-12-05T00:09:00

A federal advisory panel on Monday rejected a recommendation that states use only voting machines whose results could be independently verified.

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The panel drafting voting guidelines for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission voted 6-6 not to adopt a proposal that would have required electronic machines used by millions of voters to produce a paper record or other independent means of checking election results. Eight votes were needed to pass it.

The failed resolution, proposed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist and panel member Ronald Rivest, closely mirrored a report released last week that warned that paperless electronic voting machines are vulnerable to errors and fraud and cannot be made secure.

Some panel members who voted against the proposal said they support paper records but don’t think the risk of widespread voting machine meltdowns are great enough to rush the requirement into place and overwhelm state election boards.

“They should be longer-range goals,” said Britain Williams of the National Association of Election Directors. “You are talking about basically a reinstallation of the entire voting system hardware.”

Congress created the panel after vote-counting problems in the 2000 presidential election to advise the Election Assistance Commission. Monday’s meeting was held at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is advising the panel on voting technology. NIST staffers wrote last week’s report on the potential voting problems.

Paper trail problems
Some panel members worried the systems with audit trails could present problems of their own, including printer errors. Others said it was unclear that paper records could be used by voters who are blind or have other disabilities.

But Rivest warned his colleagues that software errors in the paperless machines could go undetected without a way of verifying the voting results.

That could lead to a scenario where you have “got an election result that is wrong and you have no evidence to show that it’s wrong,” he said.

Verifiable paper records are already used by many states — 27 mandate them while another 18 don’t require them but use them in all or some jurisdictions. Only five — Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland and South Carolina — use machines without a paper record. More than half of all voters used machines with paper records during the 2006 elections.

The paperless voting machines are essentially laptop computers that allow voters to cast their ballots by touching a screen, and then tally the results. They are widely used across the country.

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