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Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Friday, February 4
More Controversy Over Electronic Voting
Hart Intercivic has sued Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell over his decision to require counties to convert to precinct-count optical scan voting equipment. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer has this story. Hart and other voting machine makers are miffed because they spent considerable time and effort getting their electronic voting machines ready for the Ohio market, only to have the state reverse course last month by mandating optical scan voting instead. Hart's in an especially difficult position because, unlike Diebold and ES&S, it doesn't have a precinct-count optical scan system that it can market in Ohio.

Some local election officials are upset about Blackwell's mandate that they choose a precinct-count optical scan system by February 9, as the Cincinnati Enquirer reports here. They're also angry at Blackwell because the optical scan requirement effectively shifts the costs of new technology from the state to the counties. While electronic voting machines are more expensive up front, optical scan ballots involve higher ongoing costs due to the expense of printing new ballots in every election. Thus, going with optical scan rather than electronic voting equipment means lower frond-end costs, but higher prospective costs for the counties.

The Secretary of State's office asserts that it wasn't Blackwell but the legislature that changed the rules of the game. Last year, the Ohio legislature passed HB 262 which requires a contemporaneous paper record (euphemistically known as the voter-verified paper audit trail or "VVPAT") for electronic voting machines. Enactment of that law effectively halted counties' plans to convert to electronic voting systems, and resulted in about 72% of Ohioans using punch cards in 2004. According to Blackwell's office, the complications and added expense resulting from the the VVPAT requirement left him no choice but to mandate optical scan voting instead.

One of the other states to require the VVPAT is California. Yet the prototype being developed by voting machine manufacturer Diebold doesn't satisfy some electronic voting critics, according to this AP story. That story reports that the Diebold prototype "seeks to reassure voters by displaying their selections under a piece of glass or plastic alongside the touch-screen machine." This prototype has drawn criticism from some computer scientists who note (correctly in my view) that the security improvement that comes with a contemporaneous paper record is marginal at best. Avi Rubin, for example, calls the printer "very, very small step forward" for electronic voting security. David Dill notes that "breakdowns and paper jams are possible" with the VVPAT system.

My take: I'm putting this one in the "hate to say I told you so" file . . .

It's good to see some of the most prominent critics of electronic voting technology acknowledging publicly that paper isn't a panacea. Not only is the security enhancement of the contemporaneous paper record questionable, but the device may actually cause more problems than it solves. This is a point that I've been trying to make for some time -- see here for a post almost a year ago (have I really been blogging for that long?), criticizing the assumption that election system security issues can be solved simply by attaching a printer to electronic voting machines. That post also included some suggestions of other means by which to promote security without sacrificing the access and accuracy advantages that electronic voting offers.

The truth is that election security is much more complicated than VVPAT proponents have argued. Unfortunately, some prominent media outlets like the N.Y. Times latched on to the VVPAT as the answer to electronic voting security early on and never let go. Worse still, a few states like Ohio and California passed legislation to require the VVPAT, before its workability or efficacy had been established. (Electionline.org has this up-to-date list of the status of paper trail laws.) Now the hasty enactment of VVPAT laws is looking like a huge mistake. Even the most vocal critics of electronic voting security are questioning, properly in my view, the workability and efficacy of this supposed solution.

My hope is that the debate can now move beyond the simplistic assumption that paper and security are synonymous. A serious examination of other means by which to promote the democratic values of security, transparency and equality is long overdue.

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