Saturday, November 6, 2004

Paper trail tested for e-vote devices

By Elise Ackerman, San Jose Mercury News, November 6, 2004

Nevada officials happy with system that's likely for Santa Clara County


An example of what can go wrong was given by election officials in Ohio's Franklin County on Friday morning. An electronic voting system manufactured by Danaher Controls awarded an extra 3,893 votes to Bush, they said.

A new California law could make such snafus easier to catch by requiring all electronic voting machines to produce paper trails by January 2006.

The equipment that will most likely be used in Santa Clara County got an early workout in Nevada, where printers were attached to 2,740 electronic voting machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems -- the same machines used in Santa Clara County.

Despite initial fears that the printers would create complexity and extra problems, Nevada election officials said the equipment functioned well. ``We've been very happy with it,'' said Steve George, a spokesman for Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller.

George said the biggest problems occurred during early voting at a polling place in Pahrump, a rural town 60 miles west of Las Vegas, where paper in the Sequoia printers was misfed or jammed. ``It was fixed immediately,'' George said.

Larry Lomax, the registrar of voters for Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, said the use of the printers ``totally eliminated complaints'' from his 684,313 registered voters.

``We can just hardly wait to get it,'' said Jesse Durazo, the registrar of Santa Clara County. Durazo said the county will ask Sequoia to provide the printers as soon as they are certified by California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. State regulations require voting equipment be certified before it can be used.

Caren Daniels-Meade, a spokeswoman for Shelley, said he was waiting for a report from Sequoia Voting Systems and San Bernardino County, which was allowed to try the printers at one polling place.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation and a proponent of paper-trail systems, noted that one hurdle the Sequoia printer faces is that it doesn't randomize ballots. It stores the voting records sequentially on a strip of paper that rolls out under a glass cover as voters make their choices.

Before voters press the ``cast ballot button,'' they can review the paper record to make sure their votes were accurately recorded.

In theory, a polling place observer could figure out how someone voted by tracking who used a particular machine and later comparing names on the polling place sign-in sheet to the paper trail. A randomized paper trail would prevent that.

In practice, such behavior also could be stopped with proper polling-place procedures, said Alfie Charles, a spokesman for Sequoia. Charles said this printer design was the most reliable. He noted that other ballots, such as absentee ballots favored by one in three California voters, also can be tied to voters if election officials are careless.

Lomax, the Clark County registrar, said counties that follow in Nevada's footsteps need to be aware that printers are expensive. Lomax said he spent $200,000 to build a secure vault to store the printers and the paper records. And, he said, there were substantial labor costs to set up, maintain and monitor the printers during the election.

Lomax also cautioned that the system was best used to increase voter confidence during an election -- not for a recount. A manual recount would be ``unbelievably cumbersome and slow'' and, most likely, inaccurate because human counters make mistakes, Lomax said.

Instead, the paper trail on a number of randomly selected machines could be checked against the software. California and Nevada routinely conduct manual audits after every election.

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