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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
Wednesday, July 13
Do Voters Actually Use Paper Trails?
While there have been lots of people calling to require that electronic voting machines generate a contemporaneous paper record (or "voter verified paper audit trail"), there's been little serious analysis of whether such a device will actually provide a workable and effective solution to the security problem. Being able to see a piece of a paper may provide some voters with a sense of comfort. But will it actually ensure that votes are counted accurately? Will it prevent or allow the detection of fraudulent activity? Can we be sure at the end of the day that the paper records are more accurate reflections of voter intent than the electronic records? And will the attached printers actually function as intended, without paper jams or other problems impeding the voting process?

The logical place to begin in answering these questions is to take a careful look at the few places that have experimented with electronic voting systems that print a contemporaneous paper record. Those include Sacramento County and a few places in Connecticut, whose experiences I've discussed in testimony to the EAC last year. It also includes the State of Nevada, which has had the most extensive implementation of an electronic voting with CPR system in last year's election. Surprisingly, there appears to have been relatively little serious examination of these experiments, although Ted Selker of MIT described in his testimony to the House Administration Committee some of his observations, including printers jamming and a poll worker in one case not only handling but literally cutting the paper trail.

Most recently, Selker and Sharon Cohen of MIT have released the results of their controlled experiment, comparing the use of paper and audio paper trails by 36 subjects. The "voters" were each asked to vote in four races, using two different machines. The first was equipped with a contemporaneous paper record (or VVPAT), while the second had a playback function that allowed voters to hear their choices (a "voter verified audio audit transcipt trail" or VVAATT). The two types of systems as well as the design of the study are described in greater detail in Cohen's thesis, available here.

Voter Verified Audio Audit Transcript Trail (VVAATT)

The study worked like this: The verification screens on the electronic voting units all showed the voters choices accurately. But on each audit trail (paper and audio), three of the races had an error while the fourth didn't. The question Selker and Cohen attempted to answer was whether the voters would notice or report these errors in the paper and audio audit trails.

What they found was that voters were much more likely to detect errors with audio than with paper audit trails. Of the 108 elections that contained errors (36 times 3), voters using the audio trail reported 14 errors; voters using the paper trail reported none. Voters were observed noticing the errors 25 times on with the audio audit trail, only three with the paper trail. Although it took longer for voters to use the audio audit trail, voters spotted more errors with it.

The bottom line is that, to the extent the we expect voters to check a contemporaneous paper record to make sure it accurately reflects their choices, Selker and Cohen's study suggests that this won't happen. And if this doesn't happen, then it can't be presumed that the paper record is a more reliable measure of voter intent than the electronic records. This is the sort of research that ought to be done before any state, much less Congress, enacts legislation to mandate a particular auditing device. The burden now lies squarely with proponents of the contemporaneous record to prove that Selker and Cohen are wrong.

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