Taking the paper trail to Washington

The dangers of electronic voting machines got tallied Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Published July 20, 2006 12:45PM (EDT)

White T-shirts are a significant departure from the standard dress code in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. So when a couple dozen activists walked into a joint meeting of the Science and Administration committees Wednesday wearing bleached cotton instead of the typical pantsuits and striped ties, it was not surprising that someone dispatched a Capitol Police officer to stand guard in case things got out of hand.

The T-shirts were imprinted with bold black letters that read "Got Paper?" or "Got Audits?" -- coded, chest-high messages that were directed at lawmakers to express the widespread concern that new computerized voting machines can be tampered with to swing elections. The activists had come to Washington to push legislation that would mandate voter-verifiable paper records for every ballot cast in the nation, a reversal of a recent trend toward touch-screen computers that only tally votes electronically. It didn't matter that the House committees did not plan to discuss the issue of ballot paper trails. "Hearings are all about theater," explained Susannah Goodman of the liberal election reform group Common Cause, in a pre-hearing meeting with the activists. "We're hijacking it."

As it turned out, the activists' point came across loud and clear to both Republicans and Democrats with hardly a peep from the gallery. The Administration Committee chairman, Vernon J. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican, opened the hearing by addressing the casually dressed crowd in the back of the room. "I notice a number of members in the audience wearing T-shirts showing their support for the paper trial," Ehlers said after his opening statement. "I am trying to arrange a separate hearing on the paper trail." This hearing, he explained, would focus on existing voting machine standards and testing guidelines.

But one by one, Ehlers' Republican and Democratic colleagues disobeyed his instructions by quizzing an all-star panel of election technology experts on the prospect of requiring paper records from every vote cast by computer. "When I had my week off I heard from an overwhelming number of constituents on the paper trail issue," explained California Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, the ranking Democrat on the Administration Committee. "Voters are very concerned that their vote is not being counted."

Crucial questions about the integrity of electronic voting machines have been simmering just beneath the surface ever since Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which provided states and counties with nearly $3 billion for new voting machines and other election reforms. The goal of the act was to erase the dimpled and pregnant problems of punch-card ballots that riddled the 2000 presidential election. At the time, no one thought much about the security of new electronic voting machines, which are designed efficiently and cheaply to record digital, not corporeal, ballots. "Frankly, there wasn't a lot of discussion about the paper trail," explained Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, who wrote HAVA before losing almost all of his public stature for his dealings with Republican über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

In recent months, however, grass-roots groups like MoveOn.org and Common Cause have made paper ballots a top-tier priority, raising the specter of hackers and corrupt officials stealing elections at will. Last week in a speech in California, Democratic Party leader Howard Dean joined the chorus by declaring, "I am tired of electronic voting machines we can't trust."

Surprisingly, the partisan tone of such applause lines has not yet poisoned the discussion in the normally polarized Congress. A bill by New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt that would require paper records from voting machines has gathered 199 co-sponsors, including Republican stalwarts like Oklahoma's Tom Cole, who served as chief of staff to the Republican National Committee in 2000. "I kind of think we need something that is auditable," explained Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican from New York who chairs the Science Committee, at the Wednesday hearing. Boehlert went on to say that the Holt proposal "sounds pretty good to me."

The problems of electronic voting machines have been well documented by academic computer scientists who specialize in exploiting security vulnerabilities. To date, there have been numerous examples of computerized voting machines breaking down or malfunctioning, occasionally skewing vote totals, though there have been no verified reports of a machine being intentionally hacked during an election. Nonetheless, a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law concluded that electronic voting machines without voter-verified paper records were more vulnerable to software attacks that could change the outcome of a close election. "There is a substantial likelihood that the election procedures and countermeasures currently in place in the vast majority of states would not detect a cleverly designed software attack program," the report concluded. Currently, only 27 states require voter-verified paper ballots.

Paper records, however, are not a panacea that solves all problems with voting machines, experts warn. Human error can also skew results, for example, and under current standards, voting machines can be approved for use even if 9 percent of them are expected to fail on Election Day. The Brennan Center experts even found ways for elections to be thrown by altering the software that printed out paper records. Meanwhile, county election supervisors have raised concerns about added costs of paper computer machines, and the increased chances for malfunctions in machines that include printers. Activists for the blind and handicapped have also raised concerns that the call for a voter-verified paper trail might set back efforts to allow the disabled to vote in privacy.

Jim Dickson, a lobbyist for the American Association of People with Disabilities, attended the hearing with his seeing-eye dog. After the hearing ended, he joked that when he ran VVPT through a computer spell-check, it came back as "vapid." "It doesn't solve the problem," he said of the proposal to add printers to electronic machines, "and it creates barriers for people with disabilities."

But such objections may soon be squelched under the popular uprising in support of paper records for touch-screen machines. Donetta Davidson, who serves on President Bush's Election Assistance Commission, testified that she personally supported paper trails for electronic machines, as did David Wagner, a computer scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mary Kiffmeyer, the secretary of state for Minnesota. Even John Groh, an executive at one of the largest computer voting machine manufacturers, Election Systems and Software, seemed to endorse the idea, while maintaining an officially neutral position. "As a vendor community," he explained, "it is our responsibility and role to meet the standards that are put in front of us."

By the end of the hearing, the T-shirt-bearing activists seemed satisfied that victory lay within reach. "It didn't feel like this a year ago," said Warren Stewart, an activist from VoteTrustUsa.org, who chose not to wear a T-shirt. "But it is nice now." The activists calmly filed out of the hearing room, and the Capitol Police officer was able to leave his post without incident.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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2006 Elections