Tuesday, January 10, 2006

SF Chronicle story examines support and opposition for paper trails

Today's San Francisco Chronicle features an article by John Wildermuth highlighting the reasons why one group, the Pacific Research Institute objects to paper audit trails in electronic voing systems. The institute released a list of what it calls the "Top 10 Policy Blunders of 2005"; #9 is "requiring paper trail recounts for e-voting machines".

Sonia Arrison is quoted in today's Chronicle article as saying, ""These same people worried about electronic voting machines are perfectly fine using an ATM machine or being in an airplane that uses computers for everything.'' I have heard such comparisons made in the past, usually by election officials who favor e-voting and equipment vendors.

The thing is, I doubt many people would actually fly in airplanes if compliance with federal security regulations were voluntary, as is the case with voting systems. And I doubt many people would use ATMs if they weren't entitled to a paper trail of the transaction and a monthly account statement.

Besides, e-voting reform advocates are hardly a bunch of Luddites. The activists working on these issues are incredibly technically-savvy, and rely heavily on the Internet and computers to achieve reforms, such as the enactment of voter-verified paper audit trail requirements in more than half the states.

More excerpts from the Chronicle article are featured below.


The Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank, has called the paper trail requirement one of the state's top 10 policy blunders of 2005. The new law "may force California to relive the mistakes of America's punch-card voting past,'' the group said, and will make voting "increasingly difficult and negate the original virtues of e-voting: speed, cost-savings and efficiency.''

"We're moving in the wrong direction,'' said Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies for the institute. "The whole point of e-voting is to move away from paper.''


Arrison and the institute are swimming against the tide. Growing concerns about the vulnerability of the complex electronic voting systems to hacking, electronic glitches and simple errors by local election officials have persuaded an increasing number of states to require paper backups for election results.

In California, support for a paper voting trail was one of the few recent bipartisan efforts in the Legislature. In 2004, SB1438, which required electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail in the coming June primary, passed the Assembly on a 73-t0-0 vote.

"Without a paper trail, you don't have hard copy to show voter intent,'' said Pamela Smith, national coordinator of VerifiedVoting.org, a group concerned about electronic-voting problems. "Instead, you have electronic copy, which may or may not reflect voter intent.''

Without a paper printout, election officials are at the mercy of the electronic voting system, with little or no recourse if something goes wrong, Smith said.


Glitches are the least of the potential problems with electronic voting, say some advocates of paper backup systems. Each voting machine company uses its own proprietary software to record and count the electronic votes, then has its own technicians to deal with any problems with the electronic systems.

"We've created a system where the oversight of elections is by private companies, and that's not acceptable in a democracy,'' said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. Without a paper verification system, "you're at the mercy of the vendor to tell you who won and who lost.''

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