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Battle to stop e-voting steps up

Experts unsure what impact last-minute lawsuits will have.

22 October 2004
By Roxanne Khamsi

With the US presidential election less than two weeks away, the battle over electronic voting is raging stronger than ever. Opponents of the technology have resorted to a series of lawsuits in a last-ditch attempt to stop the use of the machines.

The debate centres on the use of electronic voting equipment, ... Nearly 30% of voters will place their ballot using these 'e-voting' machines when choosing the next US president.

Many watchdog groups are warning that tests conducted on e-voting hardware and software are insufficient, and that faulty machines could cause votes to be missed or registered incorrectly. It's not yet clear how serious these problems will be; early voting in a dozen or so states so far has thrown up only minor glitches.

However, there is a more fundamental concern about the technology, which is that without a printed confirmation of each vote, it is impossible to hold an independent manual recount.

Trust exercise

Voters using electronic machines without a paper trail will simply have to trust the good word of the vendors and local election officials that the electronic numbers recorded in the machine memories accurately reflect the intent of the electorate," says Matt Zimmerman, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Freedom Foundation, which studies civil liberties issues related to technology.


Lawsuits imminent

Makers of e-voting machines are reluctant to incorporate technology that would produce a printed confirmation of each vote, but whether or not hard copies are generated depends mainly on the decision of each individual state.

Nevada has required that all e-voting machines come with a paper trail, for example, but Maryland and Georgia remain staunch defenders of paperless elections.

As the number of days left before the election dwindles, several groups have decided to turn to the law as a last resort against e-voting. The most prominent case involves a lawsuit brought by Democrat Robert Wexler, house representative for Florida, who claims that because paperless voting doesn't allow an independent recount, it is unconstitutional.

A three-day federal trial took place over 18-20 October, and the judge hearing the case has promised a decision as soon as reasonably practicable, although it is not clear whether this will be before or after the election, or even what effect a decision against e-voting would have.


Late requests

On 19 October, Penny Venetis, an attorney and law professor at the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers University filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of a state assemblyman and two advocacy groups seeking to block New Jersey's use of e-voting machines. A hearing will take place on 26 October to determine whether the trial will begin the next day.


However, many are sceptical of a lawsuit being filed so late. "It almost seems to be crafted for the sole purpose of creating chaos," says Doug Jones, a computer scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who has studied electronic voting. He's not convinced that this particular legal action could affect the election. "It would take an insane judge," he says. "I don't know why that one was filed."