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Printer fails to satisfy e-voting activists

One of the biggest makers of touch-screen voting machines has created a companion printer that spits out paper records, but some computer scientists say transparency in the machines’ design and software must bolster paper backups.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three months after the presidential election, one of the nation’s biggest makers of touch-screen voting machines has created a companion printer that spits out paper records.

The prototype that the company, Diebold Inc., is now touting is exactly what some critics of the ATM-like machines have been demanding for several years.

Even so, paper records alone are not enough to satisfy computer scientists who say transparency in the electronic machines’ design and software must complement paper backups.

Voter never has possession of record
The Diebold prototype seeks to reassure voters by displaying their selections under a piece of glass or plastic alongside the touch-screen machine. If they spot a problem, they can cancel the ballot and start over. And while voters cannot touch the paper records, election officials will be able to use them to verify close elections.

“Results in the last election reflected the accuracy and security of the [paperless] system,” said David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold. “But the fact of the matter is, there are some states that are demanding printers.”

After months of criticism by computer scientists that electronic voting systems were unreliable, California and Illinois recently passed laws requiring a paper trail for electronic ballots, and at least 20 other states have considered similar legislation.

Critics of Diebold, which is based in North Canton, Ohio, say the AccuView Printer Module is a step in the right direction but does not address the potential for buggy software or malfunctioning hardware that could misrecord votes or expose voting systems to hackers, deletions or other disasters.

The printers are valuable only to the extent that counties use them, and critics worry that county elections officials with tight budgets may not opt for them.

Computer scientists are also concerned that the handful of private laboratories licensed to certify voting equipment, including the printer module, still operate in secret and without any federal guidelines.

“It’s a very, very small step forward in terms of security of elections,” said Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute of Johns Hopkins University and co-author of a scathing report on Diebold machines.

Like many computer scientists, he thinks paperless voting systems should be banned.

“I’d say a Diebold machine with a paper trail is better than a Diebold machine without a paper trail, but that’s as positive I can be about it,” Rubin said.

Numerous problems reported
About 40 million Americans cast electronic ballots during the Nov. 2 election, but only 2,600 touch screens in Nevada — made by Oakland, Calif.-based Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. — and a few other prototypes around the country produced paper records.

Some of the paperless systems were blamed for high-profile failures in November:

  • In Carteret County, N.C., where paperless machines failed to retain 4,438 votes during early voting, a Democratic incumbent lost by 2,287 votes out of about 3 million cast. Courts and the state elections board are deciding how to handle the missing ballots, but the winner of the race for agriculture commissioner still has not been determined.
  • About three dozen voters in six states complained that they tried to select Democrat John Kerry but that the touch screens showed them as having voted for President Bush until they revised their ballot. Equipment manufacturers blamed miscalibration.
  • In a Franklin County, Ohio, precinct where 638 voters cast ballots in the presidential election, a computer recorded 3,893 extra votes for Bush. The error was corrected in the certified vote total.

Even with the printer, breakdowns and paper jams are possible, said David Dill, a computer scientist at Stanford University and a leading critic of touch screens.

Others say printers only compound the complexity of the nation’s patchwork of voting systems. Counties must pick from hundreds of models of voting equipment, maintenance contracts, software and hardware upgrades, consulting services and other add-ons.

Grass-roots attack on the problem
Because no federal agency enforces certification standards, one voter advocacy group is creating a Consumer Reports-style ranking for voting equipment.

The Voting Systems Performance Rating would create standards and assign grades on such factors as reliability, security, privacy and accessibility for the visually impaired. States and counties could use such rankings to help them decide which products to buy.

“You can’t solve the voting problem unless you have a totally transparent mechanism to evaluate,” said a founding member, David Chaum, a cryptographer in Los Angeles. “In order to crack this voting systems nut, you have to do it in the broad light of day.”