Thursday, September 23, 2004

Experts criticize companies' recount proposals

Experts criticize companies' recount proposals

By Dara Kam

Special to The Palm Beach Post

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

TALLAHASSEE — Manufacturers of the touch-screen voting machines used by more than half of Florida's electorate said they can perform manual recounts if necessary, but at least one company said it probably won't be ready by the general election on Nov. 2.

Computer experts, however, say the companies' responses to Secretary of State Glenda Hood's request for how to perform the recount fall far short of guaranteeing that every ballot is accurately counted.

"All of this is not in any way a recount," said Rebecca Mercuri, a Harvard-affiliated computer scientist. "It's a reprint."

Hood, appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush two years ago, gave manufacturers and "interested parties" until Sept. 10 to tell her how manual recounts can be conducted on the ATM-style machines. Last month an administrative law judge threw out a rule created by Hood's office that excluded the 15 touch-screen voting counties, including Palm Beach and Martin, from performing manual recounts in extremely tight races, saying that a state law requiring recounts in such cases superceded the departmental rule.

All three of the touch-screen machine manufacturers - Sequoia, Diebold and ES&S — offered methods that would essentially reprint the information captured by the machines. None offered a voter-verifiable paper trail, as U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler has sued in state and federal court to require.

The elections equipment officials told the state they could print "ballot images," but Mercuri said that is inadequate.

"The thing the voter actually saw is just ephemera — it's just electrons — then it's gone," she said. She suggested that the ATM-style machines instead be outfitted to print out a copy of the ballot for voter inspection, which would be collected for use in the event of a recount.

Elections Systems and Software officials wrote Hood that a tabulation of under-voted ballots, those on which no vote was recorded in some races, could be performed using auditing software already employed on the machines, which are used in Martin County. But Mercuri said that software has a glitch that delivers inconsistent results when generating an electronic log of voting activity.

The same company told Hood in a Sept. 10 memo that "ES&S could create an enhanced recount function," but would need six to 12 weeks to do so. That enhancement, which was not specified in the memo, would need to be certified by state elections officials.

Florida law requires a manual recount in elections that are decided by 0.25 percent of the votes cast or less. County canvassing boards look at the ballots and determine what the "voter intent" was in instances of under-votes and over-votes, which occur when more than one candidate is chosen in a single race.

Sequoia Voting Systems, which makes the system used by Palm Beach County, preferred to conduct recounts from the voting machines as opposed to recreating each ballot, which Michael Frontera, a company vice-president, said was too "labor intensive."

"This will generate approximately 1,000,000 records for the general election," in the four counties that use Sequoia machines, he wrote. "The chances of human error in recounting this number of records are extremely high."

But one elections expert said that even re-creating each ballot a machine records would not guarantee the ballot was recorded correctly in the first place.

"There's a difference between voter intention and valid ballots," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor who specializes in elections.