New Voting Systems Test More Than Candidates in Primary Season

It's been a tough year for Angie McGinnis, whose job as county circuit court clerk has been to make sure that the new electronic voting system in Oktibbeha County, Miss., would be up and running right by Tuesday's primary election. But she thinks she's ready.

"It's kind of like the old adage: If life hands you lemons, you make lemonade," McGinnis said.

As in other cities, counties and states around the country that experienced problematic presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, Oktibbeha County has made the conversion from plain paper ballots to include an electronic element.

It's all part of federal law, the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which has been tweaked since the last election to require that most people have access to at least one electronic machine in their district. For the first time, every place in the nation is also required to have a machine that is accessible to disabled voters, including the deaf and the blind.

Few exceptions have been made, though some Gulf Coast areas still recovering from last year's hurricanes and New York state have been excused. Those locations missed the deadline and have negotiated a deal with the Justice Department to provide a limited number of compliant systems.

To meet the law, many jurisdictions have made the switchover to full electronic counting, meaning that more votes than ever will be cast electronically this year. But wary security observers and voter rights activists have begun stepping up efforts to shift the tide in electronic voting to include an old school safety mechanism.

While some voters have cast digital votes for years, those concerned with the new system say some of the most common new machines could fail or might be corrupted just as easily as their low-tech predecessors, and analysts continue to raise concerns about the security of the machines. The manufacturers of the systems — including Diebold Inc., which makes the machines in widest use — continue to say their machines are safe and secure.

Sean Greene, research director for the voting information group, said momentum is growing toward a system that allows voters to double-check themselves before casting their votes. That would also create a backup, hard-copy vote, referred to by observers as voter-verified paper trails.

Most districts have paid a lot of cash for their new electronic systems without paper registers. It's not clear if state officials are now rethinking that decision, Greene said, but there is "a slowing down of people's, sort of looking at electronic voting machines as the answer to the problems that happened in 2000."

In McGinnis' case, she said the debate over machines heated up about one year ago when Mississippi was figuring out how to comply with this year's Jan. 1 deadline set in HAVA. Some in the state had debated which program to go with, but the eventual decision was to contract with Diebold, she said.

"I fought it and I held out to the bitter end. ... I was a little reluctant" about electronic voting, McGinnis said. Her job as county clerk is an elected position that in part oversees elections. She said she had seen the reports about the concerns, including privacy, data corruption and the possibility that a bad actor could hijack results.

Because the Diebold plan under consideration in her state didn't create a voter-verified paper trail, she tried to get her county's officials to buy a system outside the state contract. But it was going to be too costly, she said. Budget officials told her federal funding would completely cover the cost of the Diebold machines, but the county would have needed to come up with about two-thirds of the cost of other machines, McGinnis said.

With an outside contract essentially dead on arrival, she said she continued to push, and eventually Diebold provided her county with machines that provide a paper printout of the recorded vote, which can then be locked up and counted in the case of a discrepancy in the touch-screen count.

"We may have lost the battle, but won the war. ... We will have a paper trail," McGinnis said.

States like California have also moved to methods that create a paper trail in order to prevent discrepancies, and complaints are starting to make their ways through state administrative agencies and courts. California is moving toward using the so-called optical scan approach in which voters mark an electronically-scannable ballot.

New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson successfully pushed his state's Legislature to produce a voter-verified ballot requirement this year. Maryland Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich advocated for a move to a paper-trail design, but was defeated by the state's General Assembly.

Last month, the group Voter Action filed a lawsuit against Arizona officials claiming that machines to be used this year violate state law. The group is involved in a number of states to fight touch-screen-only voting systems.

Aside from the privacy and corruption concerns, critics are complaining to basic operational problems. West Virginia's secretary of state this year filed a formal complaint with federal authorities after state officials said the contractor, Elections Systems & Software, failed to meet deadlines to comply with HAVA. And in Ohio, a flurry of complaints surrounded its May 2 primary after some machines didn't work properly, although it wasn't initially clear if it was the machines or the election officials who were at fault.

David Dill, a Stanford University computer science professor and the founder of the advocacy organization, said it's not possible to make a computer-based voting system 100 percent trustworthy except through one method.

"You make sure that every voter can make sure that the paper copy of his vote can be recorded," Dill said.

That might seem like a step in the wrong direction for someone whose focus is on researching and developing ways to make sure computers aren't corrupted, but he said it's really a matter of trusting the people who program the machines and handle them once their programmed.

"Basically, between your finger and the electronic copy of the vote, there's nothing but the machine and the people who programmed it," Dill said. There's nothing to say someone didn't upload a virus-like program that could corrupt the machine, or several machines.

"There should never be a point where one person can steal the election," Dill said, adding that voting techniques should follow cues from financial institutions, putting in place a number of checks and balances to ensure that all the votes cast are recorded properly.

He advocates for the optical-scan approach in use in California. The paper ballot with the actual vote is scanned into a machine, and then locked up and available for counting if the computer checks indicate something is incorrect.

In some cases, states do random checks of their electronically-recorded paper ballot counts, but they are not required, another flaw critics point to in the federal law.

"We think that they only way that people can kind of have confidence in their vote is to have a voter verifiable paper trail that can be used at the end of the night to ... check votes," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the advocacy organization Common Cause, which is trying to garner support for a bill introduced last year in the House that would make voter verification mandatory, as well as spot checks of those systems by federal auditors.

But with most of the primary races yet to be held this year, election officials will have their hands tied just trying to keep up with the laws as they're written. Back in Oktibbeha County in the days leading up to Tuesday's primary, McGinnis said she was peddling her new machines to voters around the district so they'd be familiar with them before they cast their votes.

"This is going to be, I think, a test of the machines. I've been out in the community since March actually demonstrating the machines," McGinnis said.

There has been a little reluctance, especially among elderly voters, she said.

"They weren't for that. ... But once they used the machines, they were just tickled to death that they could do that, that they handled it well," McGinnis said.