Thursday, November 10, 2005

End of paperless e-voting in California

Tuesday's election marked the last time paperless electronic voting machines will be used in a California election. Ian Hoffman of the Oakland Tribune wrote an article about the end of the era. Excerpts are below.


Elaine Ginnold awoke in a darkened home with no electricity - a harrowing way for the Alameda County elections chief to launch Tuesday's special election with fully electronic voting machines.

No power, no votes.

Ginnold muttered an epithet but relaxed later when driving past her local polling place, a fire station with its lights blazing. Her Election Day opened with the usual headaches: no-shows of poll workers, polling places still locked and a smattering of technical problems such as inoperable electronic voter cards and a few inoperable e-voting machines. The days of those last glitches, and worrying about power outages, are on their way out. The era of paperless, fully computerized voting machinery ended Tuesday in California.

Ginnold for one isn't sorry to see a return to paper balloting.

“I'm looking forward to it,” she said. “I don't see that we're going backwards at all."

Soon after voters in Piedmont tried their hand at paperless, touch-screen voting in 1999, electronic voting soared in popularity. It was easy as an ATM. The curses of paper balloting multiple languages, multiple districts, multiple parties, paper jams would vanish, along with the hanging and pregnant chad so reviled from the 2000 elections.

E-voting had none of these ambiguities: The memory either stored a vote for, a vote against or none at all.

E-voting makers and elections officials talked of near-instantaneous results, beamed wirelessly from polling places to central elections offices for immediate posting on the Internet. Paperless voting was the way of the future.

But in 2002, criticism arose from an unlikely quarter: Computer scientists who had written software for NASA moonshots and Star Wars missile-defense systems said computers were too subject to programming error and too unsecure to rely upon them solely as arbiters of political power.

More detailed analysis of e-voting software at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere revealed vulnerabilities to hacking.

The new voting machines also brought their own drawbacks. They were expensive, often costing $4,000 apiece, and while the touch screens themselves had relatively few problems, related hardware and software breakdowns thwarted voters in several large counties in 2004.

In California, voters wary of politics and government latched onto the controversy and to one solution proposed by computer scientists: Add printers to the electronic voting machines and provide a printed record of the ballot for voters to check and elections officials to recount.

In six months, the state became the first to require a voter-verified paper trail for all e-voting machines. Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill requiring elections officials to use the paper trail in recounts.

“It's been a long road to get where we are now, where the use of paperless electronic machines is on the decline,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation and a leading advocate of paper trails.


Starting Jan. 1, all electronic voting machines must produce a paper trail that will be used in automatic recounts of 1 percent of precincts, as a check of computerized vote tallies, and in full recounts in the event of an election challenge.

Alfie Charles, an executive with Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems and a former state elections official, said he thinks paperless e-voting is gone for good.

“It worked well and served its purpose but unfortunately was not trusted, for either perceived or valid reasons,” he said. “And in elections, perception is critical.”

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