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Computer voting reignites fears

Machines that leave no paper trail have officials and voters worrying about the potential for errors and fraud

Published March 22, 2004

Scott Vanderveer walked out of his Pinellas Park voting precinct on March 9 with a thought running through the back of his mind: Did the computer get his vote right?

He'd had no troubles. Voting with the 2-year-old touch screen machine was easy, he said. But the question lingered until he satisfied himself with a realization: "With the punch holes, you had the same problems," he said.

Coming up on four years since Florida's national embarrassment in the 2000 presidential election, the doubts remain. Laws have been passed and millions have been spent to buy new voting machines and to educate poll workers and voters.

But battles are still being fought about how votes are counted in Florida, and they appear likely to continue through November's presidential election. The transition into the digital age of vote counting, where votes are tabulated not on recountable ballots but in computer memory, has been greeted - like previous changes - with a good deal of anxiety, and some genuine problems.

On election night in Bay County, for instance, U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, who dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary in January, was leading in a landslide before elections officials shut down the machines. A programming error in the county's optical scanner system caused the machines to erroneously credit Gephardt with votes that had been cast for front-runner Sen. John Kerry.

And there has been a stir in Broward County, too. But the problem is less clear. According to voting records, 169 people took the time to go to the polls for the presidential primary but then apparently cast blank ballots, voting for no one.

These undervotes triggered great concern in a county that cast almost 125,000 ballots, in part because much of the dispute in the 2000 election involved undervotes on punch-card ballots in which some of the cards weren't fully punched.

In Hillsborough County, 255 ballots had no vote in the presidential preference primary in March. In Pinellas County, in precincts where only the presidential candidates were on the ballot, 211 had no vote. The undervotes in those three counties totaled 635 - more ballots than the 537 votes that determined victory the 2000 presidential election.

But elections officials say undervotes happen all the time.

"It's really hard to get into the motivation that makes people do what they do," Citrus County Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill said. "We can't put our thinking, my thinking or your thinking, of why someone is doing that. It's their right not to vote for someone."

Supervisors of elections say they have absentee ballots - ballots that required the voter to request them, fill them out, sign and date them, put a stamp on them and mail them - without a vote on them. It happens every election.

In studies of elections from the 1980s through 2000, bad ballots - where the ballot had no votes in a race or too many - accounted for an average of 2.5 percent of the vote. Undervotes in areas of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Broward where only the presidential race was on the ballot represented less than 1 percent of the ballots cast in the March 9 election.

Still, the question of undervotes comes at a time when the election process is under particular scrutiny. And even some experts in computers acknowledge a digital voting system is no more secure than any other.

David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford University in California who specializes in finding bugs in software, examined electronic voting systems. His conclusion: Make the computer voting machines spit out a paper receipt.

In fact, he said, he felt so strongly he founded a Web site dedicated to pushing for paper ballot receipts. For Dill, the problem is proof.

"What if they got it perfect? How do we know it's perfect?" he asked. "The question that every voter ought to have is, "Why should I trust this machine?' The burden of proof should be on the person who is trying to get you to use that machine."

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, agrees. He has sued the state, in federal and state court, to require paper receipts with electronic voting machines. His argument is that because computerized voting does not generate a physical ballot that can be recounted, the system is illegal.

Supervisors of elections throughout the state, as well as Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, have said the paper records aren't needed.

"Florida is essentially the only jurisdiction where the people in charge . . . have said no" to paper ballots for recounts, Wexler said. "They argue that these machines are infallible. It's an absurd argument. The last time we heard it, I think, was when the Titanic set sail."

But paper receipts aren't without problems.

There's little consensus on how such receipts would be handled; buying and operating printers for every voting booth would be expensive;, there are no printers on the market that have been certified for voter use; and a paper receipt still doesn't explain if someone intentionally undervoted or not.

Wexler is undeterred. There's federal money available for costs, and prototype printers have been built. Without a paper receipt, he said, the system is too exposed to fraud or malfunction.

"I'm not suggesting that there is a perfect system," Wexler said. "I think the goal should be to get as close to the perfect system as we can, with the technology that's available with resonable cost."

To Ken Lepartito, a professor of the history of technology at Florida International University in Miami, much of the debate feels dated. He said the demand to add a paper receipt to computer voting machines is what happened in 1892 when lever machines began replacing the easily manipulated system of simple, paper ballots.

"That became a way to steal elections," Lepartito said. "You get the machine and it's like changing the odometer readings on cars."

Lepartito said voting has gone from paper to machine to paper and machine again. Each time, the switch was made to fix a problem with the previous system. Each time, different problems arose.

"The history seems to show that the application of technology to make voting fair . . . doesn't always work. There's actually reason to worry," he said. "In some ways, the punch card ballot returned us to a paper trail. At least there was something to count."

Elections officials say Florida is in better shape today than it was in 2000 to handle a closely contested presidential election. But critics and supervisors say there is still a margin of error, and no one knows how wide.

"There's never been a perfect election," Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said. "And there never will be."

[Last modified March 22, 2004, 07:35:58]

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