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Politics

Red flags raised on voting machines

Sarasota's ballot troubles coincide with a report critical of its system.

By Alisa Ulferts and Wes Allison
Published December 2, 2006


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This much state elections officials know: The 10 voting machines they used in a mock Sarasota County election this week worked as they were supposed to work. Votes were cast, and the same number of votes were counted.

Here's what they still don't know: why there were 18,000 fewer votes cast Nov. 7 in a bitter congressional race than in the other races on the ballot that day. The election re-enactment failed to produce the high percentage of "undervotes" that occurred in Sarasota County on Election Day.

And that lack of certainty fed calls on Friday for another overhaul of the nation's voting systems, even as a federal agency issued a draft report critical of electronic voting machines.

By 7 p.m. Friday, at the conclusion of the second round of uneventful testing of select Sarasota voting machines, the state appeared not much closer to solving the mystery of the missing votes than it was when it began - except to say it didn't appear to be machine error.

"It's exactly as we expected," Division of Elections spokeswoman Jenny Nash said of this week's two-day audit.

State officials tested two sets of Sarasota voting machines - one set that had not been used on Election Day and another set that had been used. State workers "voted" on the machines for 12 hours on Tuesday and then again on Friday. Their actions were videotaped and the state will further analyze the results next week.

Republican Vern Buchanan has been certified as the winner of the District 13 race with a 369-vote margin, and Democrat Christine Jennings has filed a lawsuit challenging the results.

Call for paper record

On Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is scheduled to become chairwoman of the committee that oversees federal elections, announced that she plans to hold hearings into the security and reliability of electronic voting machines. She also plans to file legislation requiring an independent paper record of every ballot.

"As we've seen in Sarasota, Florida, where officials have been unable to account for about 18,000 undervotes in the congressional election, it is crucial that there be an independent record that can be reviewed by election officials," Feinstein said in a statement.

Other lawmakers, including New Jersey Democrat Rep. Rush Holt, are also revving up their calls for a paper trail.

The calls for more voting reform are reminiscent of Congress' rush to outlaw punch cards and lever systems after the 2000 presidential election debacle. But critics of electronic machines say federal and state elections officials were too quick after 2000 to embrace the technology without considering that those voting methods had their own vulnerabilities.

Machines criticized

Another push to require a printer on electronic machines to give elections officials a paper trail could backfire, they say. Indeed, this week the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections saw a presentation from Ohio elections officials who have endured jammed or broken printers in their elections.

"I think there is a danger that you could rush into something that could have unintended consequences, like the electronic machines have had," said Ben Wilcox of Common Cause Florida.

Wilcox isn't alone in his worries. The Sarasota recount is providing a real-time example - and convenient cautionary tale - for experts concerned with the national move toward touch-screen voting machines.

This week, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released a draft report that was roundly critical of the touch-screen voting machines used in much of the nation, including Florida, because their results cannot be independently verified.

Unlike an optical scan ballot, which is read by a machine, there is no way to sit down and manually count votes recorded by an electronic system - instead, it only records what its software tells it to.

Giving voters a paper receipt confirming their choices is also no panacea, because the receipt only shows what the computer registered. A rogue programmer also could rig an election, the report said.

"Simply put, the ... inability to provide for independent audits of its electronic records makes it a poor choice for an environment in which detecting errors and fraud is important," the report said.

Feinstein cited the report in her call for hearings Friday: "It further demonstrates the importance of moving forward with new legislation to require that there be an independent paper record of every ballot," she said.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

[Last modified December 2, 2006, 06:17:05]


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