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The Mercury News

Electronic voting raises recount angst


Politics & Government
May 13, 2004
By Elise Ackerman

The federal government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize the nation's voting booths in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the divisive Florida recount of 2000. But critics warn it could produce something worse in November: no meaningful recount at all.

The reason is that many states, including a dozen where the presidential race is expected to be closest, will be using new electronic voting machines that record votes digitally. There will be no physical ballots to recount.

``As bad as Florida was, ultimately they could have kept recounting. They had the votes there,'' said Ed Davis, vice president of Common Cause, an advocacy group. ``With electronic voting machines, there is nothing to recount. Over and over, you are going to get the same answer you got the first time.''

But local election officials contend that electronic machines are highly accurate and reliable. They argue that voting systems always have been susceptible to error and tampering.


``You don't have to buy into a conspiracy theory to know that sometimes computers go wrong,'' said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who has sponsored a bill that would require electronic voting machines to produce a paper record by November. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, recently introduced a similar bill that does not specify a deadline.


But so far neither bill has received the necessary support from the Republican leadership to be passed in time for the election.

DeForest Blake ``Buster'' Soaries Jr. is chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, a new agency created to oversee federal elections. He said he plans to ask local election officials to implement a series of ``best practices'' to ensure the integrity of all voting machines. Such measures are similar to stringent security requirements recently imposed by California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley.

``This is how we get November right,'' Soaries said.

But unlike Shelley, who has authority to decertify voting machines under state law, Soaries cannot force local election officials to follow his recommendations.


But computer scientists who have reviewed pre-election testing processes said the simple tests used by local jurisdictions do little besides check that a ballot is properly laid out.

They cautioned that the complex nature of computer code makes electronic machines uniquely vulnerable to accidental programming errors or malicious tampering. And they warned the widespread practice of sending machines home with election workers before an election creates a dangerous opportunity for fraud.

``If I have the machine home in my basement, I can take it apart, I can replace the microprocessor, I can replace anything I want,'' said Doug Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa. ``You run the risk of unlimited manipulation of votes.''


Candidates who have been through electronic recounts say a larger issue is involved: the legitimacy of an election. ``All the other stuff goes away if you don't know that elections are legitimate,'' said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who requested a recount of digital ballots after losing a 1998 U.S. Senate race by 428 votes. Ensign, who went on to win another Senate race in 2000, said the electronic voting machines merely reproduced the same tally as before, causing him to doubt the outcome.

Ensign said next week he plans to introduce a Senate bill requiring paper receipts. ``I am very concerned about the accuracy of our ballot box.''