Concerned about the reliability of electronic voting, a federal panel is examining ways to safeguard polling from hackers and bad software to avoid another disputed presidential election this November.

The first public hearing Wednesday by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (search) comes as many states consider legislation to require a paper record of every vote cast as a backup to technology they consider potentially faulty or vulnerable to malicious attack.

About 50 million Americans this fall are expected to use the ATM-like voting machines, which states rushed to get to replace paper ballots after Florida's hanging-chad (search) fiasco in 2000.

Critics say the touchscreen machines can't be trusted because they don't leave a paper trail.

"My primary concerns ... are there is no way for voters to verify that their votes were recorded correctly, there is no way to publicly count the votes, (and) in the case of a controversial election, meaningful recounts are impossible," said Aviel D. Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, who was scheduled to testify before the commission.

"I do not know of a single computer security expert who would testify that these machines are secure," he said.

To help prevent mishaps this November, the four-member bipartisan panel is expected to soon issue recommendations to state and local officials, such as urging poll workers to keep a stack of paper ballots available in case electronic machines fail to operate.

"We cannot afford to have a replay of 2000, when voting systems failed to properly record voters' intent ... and when millions of Americans questioned the outcome and legitimacy of the presidential election," said Kay Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters, who was to testify Wednesday.

"Specific security measures are needed," she said.

Machines in more than half the precincts in California's San Diego County malfunctioned during the March 2 presidential primary, and a lack of paper ballots may have disenfranchised hundreds of voters.

Congress created the commission under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which began distributing $3.9 billion to states to upgrade voting systems after the disputed 2000 election. The panel is charged with ensuring the voting process is sound, although it lacks the power to enforce any standards it sets.

Meanwhile, the commission has said it is woefully underfunded, with only $1.2 million of its $10 million budget appropriated, prompting the commission to caution it might not have the resources to immediately forestall widespread voting problems.

Republican chairman DeForest B. Soaries Jr., a former New Jersey secretary of state named by President Bush in December to the commission, has said the panel will need $2 million more this year and the full $10 million in 2005 to fulfill its mission of restoring public faith in electronic voting.

Executives from Diebold Inc., Hart Intercivic Inc., Election Systems & Software Inc., and Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. will speak Wednesday, along with California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley.