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Edward B. Foley
Free & Fair is a collection of writings by Edward B. Foley, one of the nation's preeminent experts on election law.

Weekly Comment

The Paper Trail Debate

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July 27, 2004

The 2000 election exposed the shortcomings of the United States' voting system, including our continuing reliance on antiquated equipment like the infamous "hanging chad" punch card. Since then, a vigorous debate has emerged over new voting technology. The focal point of this debate has been the security of electronic "touchscreen" voting machines.

From a voting rights perspective, touchscreen voting offers considerable advantages over paper-based systems. Touchscreens allow citizens to verify their choices before casting votes and automatically prevent mistaken "overvotes." They virtually eliminate the racial gap in uncounted votes and facilitate independent voting by citizens whose primary language is not English. Finally, touchscreens can be adapted to allow citizens with disabilities to cast secret ballots — often for the first time in their lives.

Notwithstanding these advantages, some have argued that touchscreen voting is a threat to democracy, and that a return to paper is the only solution. More specifically, they have urged that electronic voting machines be required to produce a contemporaneous paper replica ("CPR") of the electronic ballot, commonly referred to as the "voter verified paper audit trail." A handful of states, including Ohio and California, will mandate the CPR in 2006.

Although these efforts are well-intentioned, the CPR is an experimental device that has yet to be proven workable or effective — and has caused serious problems in the few places that have tried it. In a Connecticut trial of the CPR, its user-interface problems were found "appalling." And as we all know, printers sometimes jam. When this happens on election day, it can tie up the polling place and threaten voter privacy. In short, the CPR is not ready for prime time.

Ironically, the consequence of the "paper trail" controversy has been to perpetuate the use of unreliable voting equipment. In Ohio, for example, over 70 percent of voters will continue to vote by punch card in this year's election. Given that both parties project Ohio as being critical to victory, it's quite possible that this state could become the next Florida.

That's not to say that electronic voting is perfect. No voting technology is. But if the 2000 election should have taught us anything, it's that paper is no guarantee of electoral integrity.

Instead of requiring a redundant paper replica of the electronic ballot, we should be focusing on procedures that will promote accurate elections. That includes rigorous testing of all voting equipment, paper-based and electronic. It also includes thorough poll worker training, so that voters are properly instructed when problems arise. The best way to avoid lost votes in November is to improve testing and training, not to mandate unproven hardware.