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Election 2004

Expert: Electronic voting system is 'out of control'

The computer scientist is a witness for the state in U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler's lawsuit to force production of paper trails.

By Associated Press
Published October 20, 2004

[Times photo: Willie Allen Jr.]
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FORT LAUDERDALE - A voting expert testifying for the state agreed Tuesday with an attorney for U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler that the nation's system of electronic voting is "out of control."

The testimony came on the second day of trial in a lawsuit by the Boca Raton Democrat, who wants to force the state to create a paper trail for touch screen voting machines when recounts are needed in tight races.

Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie-Mellon University, was reminded Tuesday that he told a congressional committee in July that industry standards are lacking for makers of voting machines, testing is inadequate and no compulsory procedures exist for fixing problems.

"The system is out of control just about, isn't it?" Jeff Liggio, Wexler's attorney, asked on cross-examination.

"Yes," Shamos responded.

But Shamos stressed Tuesday that he does not support moves by some states to require a paper trail visible to voters using touch screen machines.

Liggio noted that Illinois, Maine and Vermont are requiring paper trails, and that Wexler wants printouts in Florida.

"See, when something gets started, it's difficult to stop," Shamos said.

Shamos and another witness, Pasco County Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning, generally opposed changing procedures before the Nov. 2 presidential election.

"When you start introducing a change in procedure or technology at such a late date, it has a tendency to cause havoc and chaos," said Browning, Pasco's election chief for 24 years.

Manual recounts are mandated by state law in races with less than half a percentage point separating vote totals for the apparent winner and runnerup. But Wexler insists manual recounts are impossible with touch screens because of the lack of paper records.

Secretary of State Glenda Hood issued a new rule Friday for manual touch screen recounts. Counties would be ordered to print a copy of each voter's ballot as stored in the touch screen machines' memory. Those "ballot images" then would be compared with the tallies calculated by the machines.

But Wexler contends that if a touch screen machine is corrupted, there's no way of knowing whether the "ballot image" is actually the correct record of the voter's intent or just a botched file.

Wexler has proposed the option of offering paper ballots as an alternative to touch screen voting, but both Shamos and Browning opposed that. Shamos worried about reverting to a more fraud-prone system, and Browning saw a headache printing enough paper ballots and counting them.

An interim Election Day fix supported by Shamos would require precinct workers to occasionally check the number of votes recorded on machines against the number of voter sign-ins as a way of verifying the machines are recording votes.

U.S. District Judge James Cohn's decision will affect more than half of the statewide vote covering the 15 Florida counties with touch screen machines. Testimony was expected to finish today with Theresa LePore, Palm Beach County's outgoing elections chief, and Ion Sancho, who holds the same post in Leon County in Tallahassee.

[Last modified October 20, 2004, 00:16:16]

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