Monday, May 09, 2005

Push to replace voting machines spurs confusion

Push to replace voting machines spurs confusion
By Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Election officials across the nation are scrambling to meet a Jan. 1 deadline to replace outmoded voting machines with equipment that is supposed to be more accurate. But a controversy over the reliability of computerized voting machines continues to cloud their decisions.

"The people who are trying to get this done at the local level are just running blind," said Keith Cunningham, president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials. "I hope there's not a 'train wreck,' but that term is being used quietly in conversations among election officials."

There is a consensus among state and local election officials that any machine that relies on computer technology should have some kind of independent backup that voters can use to make sure their votes were recorded correctly and that could be used to verify results if a recount is needed, said Doug Chapin, director of, a non-profit organization that monitors election policy.

But election officials are hearing conflicting advice from experts about what kind of backup is best. And a new report from a technical standards committee, which could be delivered as early as today to the federal Election Assistance Commission, takes no position on whether a widely favored option — a paper printout — is advisable.

"There is no clarity whatsoever on what the replacement should be," Chapin said. For cash-strapped election administrators, "there is significant downside risk that you will buy a system that will have to be modified later. They are going as slowly as they can, but the deadline may wind up forcing their hands."

Adding to the confusion is a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology study that found problems with paper backup for electronic voting machines.

In the study, 36 "voters" used electronic machines to pick candidates and were asked to double-check their ballots using a paper printout. Then they were asked to go through a similar exercise in which their vote choices were played back to them by a computer-generated voice through headphones. Errors were interspersed in the ballots. Only 8% of those using the paper backup caught the errors, compared with 85% using the audio system.

Ted Selker, an authority on human interaction with machines who oversaw the MIT research, said the study supports observations he made of voters using paper backups during recent elections in Chicago and Nevada. "I have lost confidence in paper trails," he said.

Ohio, the most closely watched battleground state in the 2004 elections, is among those struggling with the decision of what to buy.

In Tuscarawas County, Elections Director Charles Miller is awaiting a decision from his elections board by May 24, the deadline set by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

The county was poised to buy computerized touch-screen machines a year ago but delayed the purchase as controversy mounted over their reliability. Last year's presidential election was conducted on the county's old punch-card machines. Early this year, Blackwell directed counties to buy optical-scan machines, which Tuscarawas County proceeded to do.

A month ago, the state relented and opened the door for touch-screen machines — so long as they have a paper backup — and the county was back in limbo.

"They are frustrated about jumping back and forth," Miller said of his elections board. "I don't know what they are going to do."

The 2002 Help America Vote Act has provided $2.3 billion to help states replace antiquated punch-card and lever voting machines by Jan. 1. Punch cards were blamed for many of the problems in the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida, giving rise to the term "hanging chad."

But many of the machines remain in use. The problem goes back to a lack of federal guidance about what technology works best, said Cunningham, who also is election director in Allen County, Ohio.

"The federal government is a year to 18 months behind its own time frame but refuses to adjust the deadlines that counties are facing," Cunningham said. "We are on the verge of wasting one of the biggest pots of money the federal government has ever put forth."