In their zeal to get their hands on federal money, elections officials are giving away the ballot," thunders Paul Berendt, chair of the Washington State Democrats. "That is wrong."
Berendt and the state Democratic Party are in the thick of a furious battle between an inchoate coalition of concerned citizens and the professionals who run the state's elections -- 39 county auditors and Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed. The two groups are squaring off over the widespread introduction of touch-screen voting machines. Election officials believe the machines represent a significant technological advance for the Washington electorate. Many voters are distrustful of the machines and want to insure the their reliability by requiring them to print a paper ballot, to be used as an audit trail. An august group of professors of computer science is backing the skeptics.
This debate has its roots in the disputed presidential election of 2000 in general and Florida's voting scandal in particular, with its hanging chads and butterfly ballots. After that debacle, Congress was determined to improve American elections and passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, banning the use of punch-card ballots whose interpretation caused such brouhaha in Florida. It also mandated that each polling place must have at least one touch-screen voting machine, chiefly because they enable blind people to vote independently, using headphones. Congress also provided funding for states to make these changes. Washington will receive $7.2 million to replace punch-card ballots and might get up to $60 million over the next several years for other electoral changes. Washington's secretary of state must prepare a plan for HAVA implementation and take citizen input. Currently, Reed's plan doesn't require paper ballots with touch-screen voting machines; Berendt and his allies are lobbying him to include them.
There are 3.2 million registered Washington voters. In a really good year, between 75 percent and 80 percent of us bother to vote. Most of us vote by mail, and the new machines won't affect our balloting. The roughly 900,000 of us who still vote at polling stations, however, will encounter, if not use, a touch-screen voting machine.
Because 15 of Washington's 39 counties have to switch from punch cards to a new system, and every county has to buy touch-screen voting machines, some counties are deciding to move to an all-touch-screen polling place. Snohomish County, the state's third-largest county by population, already has switched over to an all touch-screen polling places, purchasing 1,000 of the new machines. Spokane County switched from punch cards to optical scan ballots in November 2001, so the county plans on doing only the minimum in terms of touch-screen voting: one machine per polling place.
A Paperless Election? -- Using the new voting machines is like using an automatic teller machine, according to Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger, a Democrat. "Once a voter uses the equipment, there is widespread acceptance," he says. Terwilliger, like most of Washington's election officials, clearly loves these voting machines. And you can see why: No more messy paper ballots -- it's all electronic.
There are four brands of touch-screen voting machines approved for use in Washington by the secretary of state. The Sequoia Pacific AVC Edge is in use in Snohomish County. Like other models, the Sequoia saves results in more than one place in the system, using flash-memory technology similar to that used in digital cameras. A removable flash-memory cartridge is used to transport results from a polling place to a central computer, where the information is downloaded and tabulated. If necessary, the voting machine can print out a full copy of individual ballots -- with the voters' identity concealed, Terwilliger says. Power outage? The machines have a battery backup. Hackers? "There are checks and balances built into the machine," Terwilliger says confidently.
Responds the Democrats' Berendt: "Mechanical failure occurs in every election. Nothing is exact." Berendt and his allies say their solution is simple -- have the machine print out a paper ballot that would then be deposited in a ballot box. Election officials would then have a confirmed copy of each voter's preference that would serve several purposes: In the event of computer failure, the paper ballot would be a backup; the hard copies could be used as an audit trail for random sampling to ensure the accuracy of the machines; and a voter-verified paper trail would be a guard against fraud.
Interestingly, fraud is foremost on the minds of the some the nation's leading professors of computer science. David Dill, professor of computer science at Stanford University, has started a nationwide lobbying campaign for paper ballots that includes a petition signed by more than 200 professors with expertise in computer science from places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Princeton and Cornell. Endorsers include MIT Professor Ron Rivest, co-winner of this year's Turing Award, the highest honor in computer science, for his work on the algorithm that is widely used to make Internet transactions more secure.
"Almost every [academic] expert in electronic voting is on my list," says Dill. The bottom line for Dill and his allies: These machines can be hacked. Says Dill, "The level of complacency about computer security among elections people is alarming." He adds sarcastically, "If voters haven't used computers recently, they might think computers are perfect. The basic problem is you have a black box. The vote is recorded internally. You can't see what is recorded. You have to trust the machine."
Trust the Machines -- Washington election officials do trust the machines. "I'm not sure how much [the professors] have examined the software in these machines. It's proprietary," says David Elliott, assistant director of elections for Washington's secretary of state. "Frankly, these [machines] have a lot of built-in security." Elliott says independent laboratories licensed by the federal government test the machines.
In addition, Elliott and other officials don't show the same enthusiasm toward printers that they have for computers. "Printers are prone to problems. Ribbons dry out. Paper runs out or jams." He sums up: "You are introducing new complications to the voting process."
Berendt and his allies feel dismissed by elections officials. The secretary of state's office "is just jamming it through, the public be damned," complains Berendt. "The grassroots are really angry." In April, the state Democrats went on record as a party in their demand for a paper ballot.
The concern crosses party lines, though. Says Chris Vance, chair of the Washington State Republican Party: "Everything made by mankind can fail. What if the computer crashes? Without paper records, it seems fragile." The state GOP has not, however, gone on record demanding paper ballots. "Part of the reason we did not adopt an official position is that we do know and trust [Secretary of State] Sam Reed," Vance says, conceding, "Maybe it's partisan."
Reed himself is conciliatory toward those with concerns about the new voting machines. While he has full confidence in them, he says, "I'm not close-minded on the issue." Reed has been through such changes before -- from paper ballots to punch cards, and from punch cards to optical-scan ballots. During each transition, there were concerns about fraud and reliability. It has happened before, he notes, that scientists are among the most skeptical of new technologies. Ultimately, he is waiting for more testing and debate at the national level.
Time's running out -- Local activists don't feel they have much time. The comment period for the state's plan to implement the Help America Vote Act ends on Saturday, June 28. So far, state Democrats are the biggest players to demand paper ballots. Activists within the League of Women Voters, including Seattle's Janet Anderson, who is on the state's steering committee for HAVA spending, are excited that their organization at last week's state convention gave the green light to a study called "Voting -- Inside and Outside the Box." Among other subjects, it will address the issues with new voting machines. Concerned citizens, including Marian Beddill and Linda Franz, have organized Whatcom Fair Voting in the Bellingham area. A Seattle-area publicist, Bev Harris, has become a nationally known for her opinions on the subject, at www.blackboxvoting.com. (Her efforts revealed that Sen. Charles Hagel, R-Nebraska, had a previously undisclosed ownership stake in Elections Systems & amp; Software, the nation's biggest voting-machine company. The company's machines just happened to count most of the votes in the senator's last two elections.)
Berendt says, "The pressure is building. I expect to see more and more people involved, to the chagrin of these election officials." He adds, "People's confidence in the electoral system could be diminished instead of enhanced. That would be a tragedy."
George Howland is political editor of Seattle Weekly, where this story first appeared.