Some Adversaries on Paper Ballots Join Together

Posted July 2, 2004 at 5:25pm

Ronald Reagan’s advice for dealing with the Soviet Union — “trust but verify” — is quickly becoming the new mantra for some election-reform activists.

In a development that expands the breadth of consensus among some of the parties that have been warring over election reform, several groups representing the civil rights and disabilities communities have reached a “truce” with some of the computer-security experts who had first highlighted potential vulnerabilities with voting machines.

A key difference between the two camps had been the importance of having verifiable paper trails. The computer experts warned that fraud or errors would be impossible to catch with purely electronic systems, while civil rights and disability groups worried that a requirement for paper trails could infringe on voter independence and privacy and could divert funds from efforts to expand voting access.

While both sides continue to express their prior concerns, a new document signed by a range of players in the debate enshrines principles that the two sides say they can live with.

The agreement was signed by nearly two dozen computer-security experts, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

The signatories say that the answer to concerns about security and reliability for new voting machines is to employ security experts who can assess weaknesses in the nation’s voting equipment. Specifically, they recommend that the nation’s 675 counties:

• Hire a “well-qualified, independent security team to examine the potential for operational failures of and malicious attacks against” electronic voting systems, with an assessment covering hardware and software design and configurations as well as election procedures and physical security.

• Implement the independent experts’ critical recommendations and demonstrate that the fixes work.

• Provide a “thorough training program” to ensure that poll workers can carry out their duties even in the crush of an election day.

•Have a permanent, independent technology panel to “serve as a public monitor.”

• Establish standard procedures for audits.

• Fix standardized procedures for responding to allegations of fraud or error.

LCCR Executive Director Wade Henderson said that Election Assistance Commission Chairman Deforest “Buster” Soaries has pledged to study how the recommendations might be incorporated into the EAC’s work with local officials.

“I think because of the concerns about the integrity of these machines, which has been reinforced through the actions of some of the manufacturers like Diebold, we do think a security review is necessary,” Henderson explained.

The agreement stops short of mandating paper trails — a stance that other key figures in the debate are not yet willing to endorse.

Arguing that voter-verified paper trails offer the only foolproof solution, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and 144 co-sponsors have backed legislation that would mandate paper trails in time for the 2004 elections.

While Holt’s bill has been gaining steam since it was first introduced in May 2003, it faces little chance of passing due to opposition from key House leaders who say that the EAC should find solutions for such issues relating to voter confidence.

Across the aisle, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) in April introduced legislation, though his includes no requirement that verifiable paper records be ready by the 2004 election. King’s bill, titled the Know Your Vote Counts Act of 2004, has garnered the support of 36 co-sponsors.

And the LCCR-brokered agreement has not been signed by other key players in the debate who oppose paper trails.

The Rights Task Force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, a coalition of approximately 100 national disability organizations, continues to oppose paper trails, arguing in a letter to Members of Congress that a paper ballot trail would not necessarily resolve such concerns and “may create new problems” as well as erode special accessibility provisions in the Help America Vote Act.

Some companies that produce electronic-voting machines also oppose a mandate for paper trails.

Diebold spokesman David Bear recently told The New York Times that the recommendations will not prove that his company’s technology is trustworthy.