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Machine Politics

Voting activists think the future of accurate electronic voting lies in -- paper

"Everything is stupid-simple on this machine," enthuses Victor Schulte, standing over the Accupoll Voting System 1000, an electronic voting machine he is demonstrating in the Beaver County Courthouse. "Your IQ has to be below 80 to have a problem working on this."

Schulte enthuses a lot.

"It's impossible to leave the poll and be disenfranchised," he says. "Im-possible."

The Accupoll touch-screen voting machine has never been used in a national election. But a 2002 federal law, and promised federal money, will force Beaver and every other Pennsylvania county to purchase a whole bunch of these (or some other brand of machine) by the end of 2005. They're all supposed to go into use starting this spring at around $3,000 a pop. Allegheny County alone runs more than 1,300 polling places, each with multiple machines: Stocking them all will cost about $16 million.

Crowding the small courthouse rotunda in beaver, five voting-machine companies vie for public favor and public dollars. The firms here include the mammoth Diebold as well as the less well-known Advanced Voting Solutions and Election Systems and Software. Most of these machines resemble huge Palm Pilots on stilts.

Next May, if the Accupoll 1000 is picked for purchase by Allegheny County, instead of a curtain-cloaked wall of levers you'll be cozying up to what looks a very sophisticated copying machine. Wait for the poll worker to pop in a plastic card about the size of your ATM card, and you're ready to vote.

It's almost as easy as pulling a lever. Just page through the screens, poking buttons as you go, and you're done. The machine makes sure you haven't missed a race, or voted for too many candidates.

"Can you make a mistake with this machine?" asks Vince Schulte -- rhetorically, of course. "Is it possible?"

"Yeah," laughs one of three Beaver County poll workers gathered around the machine. They are ladies of a certain gray-haired age -- the Pennsylvania poll worker of electoral legend.

All three women eye the machine warily. Beside the voting machine is the laptop they'll have to operate to start the machines on Election Day morning and print out the vote tallies for their precinct that evening. It requires inserting another ATM-like card.

"I have to run this thing?" asks Mary Hanton, judge of elections in Center Township. "Plus the card?" Schulte explains how the results are burnt onto a CD after the laptop screen asks "Burn CD?"

Hanton turns away. "I don't like this machine," she volunteers. "It's just too difficult. Too complicated. We know our voters. I just think they would have so many questions."

Anticipating the one question everyone seems to have about computer voting -- Did my vote get recorded inside this damned thing anyway? -- Schulte ups his pitch.

When you ask it to tally the vote at the end of the day, he says, "The computer, one million times, it gives you the same numbers. But listen to what it has: It has the veepat!"

The veepat isn't some sort of Australian animal, it's the VVPAT -- the voter-verified paper audit trail, a paper copy of all your votes, produced for each voter just before his or her vote is counted. In most machines, the VVPAT prints on a roll of thermal adding-machine tape. The voter views it through a window in the machine, checks it for accuracy and, if everything's copacetic, hits the final "Cast ballot" button. Depending on each state's laws, the paper may be a kind of receipt or it may constitute the legal ballot if a recount is ever needed.

The Accupoll machine prints out its VVPAT on an ordinary piece of paper the voter can pick up to read. On top of the page are rows of letters and numbers as well as a bar code, which connect each printout to what's inside the machine in ways only the device can read.

Schulte picks up a checkout scanner of the sort in use at K-Mart and scans the bar code. The machine starts speaking the votes listed on the paper. There's more verification that the machine recorded your vote accurately, he says.

"The voter gets to keep this?" one of the Beaver poll workers asks.

Nope. The paper stays at the poll. If there were ever need for a recount to verify whether the election, or even just one machine, were accurate, the VVPATs can be compared to the machine tallies.

That sounds great.

Except, as Schulte never explains to the ladies, Pennsylvania won't approve any electronic voting machine that also records the vote on paper. The Accupoll 1000 got certified on Aug. 4 with the proviso that their VVPAT will be disabled.

But paper balloting, say local activists agitating for Election Day accountability, is the only thing that will save us from the electronic-voting abyss.

Ever since the first ballot box was stuffed, voters have had reason to be skeptical of the electoral process. Florida's problems in the 2000 presidential election -- during which the state used another kind of electronic voting machine, the punch-card reader -- exploded into a months-long dispute. Voters didn't understand their "butterfly" ballots; they didn't punch out every "chad" well enough for the machine to read properly. The push for extensive recounting was stopped only by a Supreme Court ruling.

Electronic voting has been around for more than 20 years. Of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, 27 currently use optical-scan machines, 5 employ touch-screen machines and 11 use punch cards. Nationally, about 30 percent of voters used touch-screens in the 2004 elections. But thanks to the fracas over Florida, Congress's Help America Vote Act of 2002 will bring electronic voting all across the country. Soon, all voters will be forced to trust one of the most complex and opaque technologies around: computer code.

While punch-card readers and optical-scan machines, which require the sort of oval-filling used on the SAT, leave their own paper trails, touch screens work in the electronic ether. Some voting-accountability activists tout the value of paper by pointing to documented cases of touch-screen malfunctions, such as those in Beaver and other neighboring counties, or to worse failures in other states, where thousands of votes were never recorded, requiring a candidate stand-off or a re-vote. Others fear deliberate manipulation of the electronic vote by hackers, the manufacturers' own technicians, or even by company owners who donate heavily to major political parties.

Every company says its security features -- the keys, seals, cards, codes and multiple memory backups -- are sound enough to withstand the most sophisticated assaults. As the state continues testing at least 11 other electronic voting devices, mostly of the touch-screen variety, activists agitate for the only voting insurance policy they say the Commonwealth needs: good old-fashioned paper.

Not that electronic voting seems complicated, on the surface. (See chart, "E-Voting Made E-Z.") Take the Accupoll machine, for instance. Its first screen is a tutorial, but if you're like most computer users, you'll skip all those annoying instructions and touch the screen's "Next" button so you can start picking candidates.

Still, the machine doesn't leave you alone. It sets "dancing ants" -- a moving dotted line -- around whatever navigational button you're likely to need next. The political races pop up one-per-screen. After you've selected Joe Politico for County Dog Catcher, the ants begin dancing around the "Next" button.

If you "undervote" by skipping the dog-catcher contest, the machine lets you know -- big time. "Undervote warning," says the next screen, in large type. "You have not cast enough votes."

If you really don't care about the future of dog catching, of course, you can still move past that or any other contest. But high undervote has been seen as one important bit of evidence for machine errors ever since the 2000 Florida voting fiasco. Accupoll, and seemingly every other machine on the market today, won't let you skip even the tiniest office without giving you a second chance to make your choice.

The machine also prevents one variety of "overvote" -- selecting two dog-catcher hopefuls simultaneously -- by allowing only one candidate's name to be chosen at a time. In races where two or more candidates may be chosen, such as judicial contests, the machine doesn't let you pick more than your share of candidates without forcing you to de-select a previous choice.

And with a push of the "Show full text" button beside any referendum on the screen, Accupoll lets you be baffled at maximum length by these ballot questions before taking a stab at an answer.

Icon-bearing buttons on the bottom of the screen also let you change the ballot to Chinese, have the ballot read through headphones, increase the type size or change the screen's contrast or two colors. The Help America Vote Act will also force these new machines to incorporate features that allow more people with disabilities to vote for, and by, themselves.

Done voting? The machine displays all your votes on a single screen. From there, you can choose to press "Cancel/start over" or "Cast ballot." All you're missing is that satisfying whoosh of the curtain at the end -- and any assurance that the 0s and 1s inside this particular black box lined up as you instructed.

"Paper doesn't fail to boot up," says Pam Smith, national coordinator of The Verified Voting Foundation (, founded by Stanford University professor David Dill. (See sidebar.) In San Diego, Calif., where Smith lives, some electronic voting machines failed in the March 2004 primary. The city didn't have paper ballot backups.

"If you need paper ballots, why not start there to begin with?" Smith says.

"We've had lots of fraud with paper in the past," she admits. "Paper is prone to fraud." But that's true because some humans will always try to cheat, she says, and because paper was once all we had.

The IRS, she says, won't accept an electronic spreadsheet of your expenses as evidence of your spending. The agency asks for actual receipts -- "the contemporaneous paper record." Eventually, she believes, there will be national legislation calling for VVPATs.

"One way or another," she says, "it's going to happen in Pennsylvania."

"Why does Pennsylvania need a voter-verified paper ballot?" asks Squirrel Hill voting-accountability activist Richard King, on his Web site ( "Voter-Verified Paper Ballots with routine audits are the most accurate, secure and auditable method of voting. Voter-Verified Paper Ballots can safeguard the integrity of our elections by keeping the election process observable and auditable. Public observation is key for insuring honesty."

Declaring the paper produced by electronic voting machines the official vote in Pennsylvania would be "like cutting the Gordian knot" of voting problems, says King. For the past six months, he has made lobbying state legislators about voter-verified paper his personal campaign. He was inspired to act after observing the Accupoll 1000 in its only local action -- handling the Democrats' candidate-endorsement vote prior to the May 17 primary.

"It doesn't matter what the problems are with the software" on any machine, King says, "if you have a paper audit trail."

"What we'd like to see is the county do an optical-scan paper-ballot system," he says, rather than purchasing touch-screens, although the state is currently testing only two optical-scan systems for certification. "You can vote by candlelight" if there is a power failure, he notes, since voting and scanning are two separate operations. Filling out the little ovals or punching the card requires only a privacy booth, not individual voting machines, so there would likely be fewer lines at polling places. Plus, "You've got the paper ballot built into the system," King notes. Optical scanners are cheaper to buy and maintain than touch-screens, he adds.

Sheila Green, of Freedom, Pa., is one of several Beaver County voters who petitioned the state to review electronic voting even before the troubled performance of machines in her county last November. The Patriot, a brand of touch-screen voting machine made by California-based Unilect, had been used in Beaver since 1998, and in Mercer and Greene counties as well. During the 2004 presidential election, those three counties saw unusually high percentages of undervotes. Mercer's elections chief resigned after coding errors were discovered in some county machines. And the state de-certified the Patriot, disallowing its purchase in this new go-round of machine acquisition. But Unilect is trying to get re-certified, and its reps were right there next to Vince Schulte's Accupoll booth, demonstrating their new version.

Green says trying to replace the Unilect Patriot with another purely electronic voting system is beside the point.

"If you pin me down to it, I think all [ballots] should be hand-counted," she says. "That is labor-intensive, but democracy isn't something you get handed to you on a platter."

Green isn't a technophobe; she teaches computer science at Community College of Allegheny County. "They have better security on nickel slots," she asserts. "You have to jump through so many hoops to assure that that's not rigged. ... But when you're voting, well, you take your chances."

Mary Beth Kuznik, a poll worker in Westmoreland County's Penn Township for the past 15 years (most recently as majority inspector of elections), believes even more in the need for paper back-ups after observing Ohio's partial recount of the 2004 presidential election. Working as one of nine regional coordinators for the Green Party, she found that Ohio's paper trail, in the form of punch ballots, didn't safeguard against alleged tampering.

Precincts selected for the Ohio recount were not chosen at random, she says. Ohio election officials who prepared for the recount "knew what precincts they were going to hand count," she believes. "When they opened the ballot boxes, [the votes] were all sorted by who they voted for for president." Plus, these punch ballots were suspiciously free of hanging chads.

The recount is still facing a legal challenge: David Cobb, Green Party presidential candidate, and Libertarian candidate Mike Badnarik have taken the state to federal court, charging that the recount "was not run by Ohio law," Green says. The suit isn't asking for another recount; instead, they're hoping to set a precedent in case law -- for the next electronic voting screw-up.

Last month's report from the national Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Reagan and George H.W. Bush cabinet Secretary James A. Baker III, concludes that "Congress should pass a law requiring that all voting machines be equipped with a voter-verifiable paper audit trail ..." While the federal Help America Vote Act requires that, as of next year's primaries, all machines be able to spit out every single ballot cast if requested for a recount, the report also calls that requirement "insufficient to fully restore confidence" in voting. Carter and Baker call for counties to routinely check their paper ballots against the electronic vote in 5 percent of randomly selected voting precincts.

Half the states already require VVPATs; 14 other states are considering legislation to use them. Pennsylvania has been one of the few holdouts. And that pleases the local expert employed by the state to test electronic voting machines: Michael I. Shamos, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Software Research International.

"I keep asking, what's the problem that everyone is trying to solve?" says Shamos. "The problem is the perception, not the reality. How much money do you think the state ought to spend to prevent alien abductions? There is a lot more evidence for alien abductions, if you believe eyewitnesses," than for fraud in electronic voting. And VVPATS give only a false sense of security, he maintains.

Voters using electronic voting machines are faced with six questions, Shamos explains:

  • "When I'm in the booth and I'm pressing those buttons, has the machine understood me?"

  • "Even if it understood me, did it record my vote correctly?"

  • "Did [all votes] get totaled correctly and is my vote included in the total?"

  • "Did it include votes of unauthorized people in the total?"

  • If a recount is needed, "Will my voter-verified paper ballot still be around to be counted or will it have mysteriously disappeared or be substituted for another one?"

  • Finally, "Is there any way I can tell [all this], after the election ... without my knowing how you voted?"

VVPAT answers the first question "and only the first one," Shamos says. "That's nice. It's something we would like to provide. It doesn't do any of the other things. That's the problem with it. ... I'm certainly not a fan of it being statutorily required.

"There is a certain degree of faith, as there is with lever machines," he allows. "Maybe 50,000 [electronic] votes a year get mangled in some way." However, he adds, "We have no evidence at all that anybody has ever been able to steal votes through electronic machines. We have lots of allegations."

Ironically, the machine's attempt to authenticate each paper record, by placing a bar code or other code on top, illustrates how slippery paper records can be, Shamos maintains. "You the voter can't read it. You can't verify it. You can't tell what the hell it means. In fact, what it might mean is, 'This is an invalid ballot. Don't count it.'"

If we can't trust electronic-voting machine manufacturers to write the software without cheating, how can we trust them with that unreadable symbol?

Right now, Shamos envisions VVPATs used only as forensic evidence in some hypothetical lawsuit involving election results, not as the official ballot in any recount. Verification of the vote, he maintains, "is an engineering problem that hasn't been fully solved yet."

Shamos' perspective has influenced the state ban on VVPATs, Squirrel Hill voting activist Richard King believes. Shamos himself doesn't make that claim, however, and according to state officials, we can't use VVPATs because there's no specific provision for them in the law.

"The [state] election code is 100 percent silent on anything related to a voter-verified paper ballot," says Brian McDonald, spokesperson for the Commonwealth's Secretary of State. "What exactly do you do with a voter-verified paper ballot?

"If a voter can actually receive his ballot," McDonald adds, rather than view it behind glass, "what happens to it when they walk out of the voting booth?" Do they hand their printed ballot to somebody in the parking lot who gives them $20 for voting a certain way? Will the Commonwealth face lawsuits from people claiming their printed ballot is no longer secret?

Accupoll's Vince Schulte calls the state's vote-buying scenario "possible, as bizarre as it sounds," then thinks better of it. "They say somebody could walk out with a ballot, I say -- bull. ... It's purely paranoia." Accupoll is already trying to get around the state's paper ban by making the paper unofficial until it is scanned back into the machine.

"It's absolutely necessary," he says of VVPATs.

"Shamos would make citizens prove that [electronic voting] systems are inaccurate and/or dishonest," says a rebuttal of the professor's views by Alan Dechert of the Open Voting Consortium and others, "rather than requiring [machine] proponents to prove their accuracy and honesty by opening them to total public review and constant verification. This burden of proof inverts the proper role of the citizen from skepticism of government to faith in government."

Richard King has the utmost respect for Shamos, but could hardly be farther from his views. "He has perhaps the best résumé on the planet for examining electronic voting machines," King says. "Vendors all say that he is exacting and tough. And I have applauded many of his tough stances on the ... federal oversight of e-voting." However, he adds, "These positions of Dr. Shamos are in a very small minority view among computer scientists."

The state's decision to approve Accupoll with its paper capabilities turned off is "a very, very conservative interpretation of state law," says Westmoreland voting activist Mary Beth Kuznik. "Voter-verified paper records will make it possible, if something happens, that we can go ahead and count the paper."

Pennsylvania may not be a VVPAT holdout forever. Last month, state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Greenfield) proposed House Bill 2000, which calls for mandatory VVPATs that will count as the only ballot should an election be in dispute. It also requires the same random audit of voting precincts as the Carter-Baker report. Activists King, Green and Kuznik are seeking support for the Frankel bill. State Sen. Joe Conti (R-Doylestown) has followed with a Senate version.

But Allegheny County isn't waiting for the state to fully stock the candy store before it goes shopping. On Sept. 26 and 27, county officials hosted an electronic voting-machine demonstration on a variety of machines for every county worker who will have to live with them, from warehouse workers to the controller. Soon, the county department of administrative services will be holding hands-on machine demonstrations for the public too. Then, with the state's blessing, the county will finally pick a vendor. County council will need to approve the choice, since it OKs the use of state grants. The board of elections will need to approve the deal as well.

At the same time, Dan Frankel's bill will be making its slow progress through the legislature. Will the county's machines be able to use their paper?

If you want an answer, ask the quintessential American citizen, the pitchman. Without VVPATs, "Why would you buy a machine?" says Vince Schulte. "The people want it. Hell yes, the people want it. If the people want it, they're going to get it."

One of these machines, recently demonstrated in Beaver County, could be yours to vote on next spring.

Machine AccuVote-TSX by Diebold

Background With a CEO notorious for his support of George W. Bush, Diebold makes most ATMs and touch-screen machines in U.S.; ran Brazil's 2001 local elections.

Niftiest feature If you pull the plug during voting, the machine doesn't blink.

Most troubling feature Simple tumbler key opens access to paper-vote canister; will be used for first time this November in 41 Ohio counties.

Least reassuring promotional line "People who use microwave ovens -- they pick this up just like that."

Cost per machine "About $3,000"

Machine WINVote by Advanced Voting Solutions

Background 5,500 already in use in U.S.

Niftiest feature Machine is supposed to shut down if tampering is detected.

Most troubling feature Same key used for every machine in each county.

Least reassuring promotional line "AVS ... is the successor to the company that invented the first lever machine."

Cost per machine "$2,995 apiece right now"

Machine Voting System 1000 by Accupoll

Background Only machine approved for Pennsylvania so far; not yet used during national vote

Niftiest features Can change to many different two-color screen schemes; black and gold may be possible.

Most troubling feature Mistaken use of black and gold in any of 31 other American cities

Least reassuring promotional line When paper ballots are enabled, "You can reprint to your heart's content."

Cost per machine "Same price as the other guys: $3,300. You don't have to buy anything else. It's all in there."

Machine iVotronic by Election Systems and Software

Background 50,000 in use across country, including entire state of South Carolina

Niftiest feature "Vote" sign flashes when vote can be cast, like car taillight.

Most troubling feature Like all but Accupoll, uses thermal paper for audit trail. "If you want a [thermal paper] vote to disappear," says state's voting-machine tester Michael Shamos, "all you need to do is put it on a radiator for a few minutes."

Least reassuring promotional line "I can put Terry Bradshaw's picture on this if that's what you want." -- ES&S techie, who had programmed demo machine election for Supreme Court justice vote between Bradshaw, Franco Harris and John Stallworth

Cost per machine $3,250

Machine Patriot by UniLect

Background Decertified this summer by state but trying again

Niftiest feature Pennsylvanians already have experienced almost-voting on these.

Most troubling feature A repeat of 2004 vote losses in Beaver, Mercer and Greene counties

Least reassuring promotional line "I'm not sure what you mean." -- company rep's response when asked whether there had been any Patriot changes since its decertification

Cost per machine $2,775


Diebold: Mark Radke

Advanced Voting Solutions: Russell Sloss

Accupoll: Vince Schulte

Election Systems and Software: Curtis Hayworth

UniLect: Jack Gerbel

Company promotional literature

Voting-accountability activists make their most detailed cases for paper ballots and other electoral improvements on the Web. Here is just a sampling of their offerings: Clickable U.S. map, showing legislative progress in each state. The case for paper, as well as ways to contact state reps. Home of the National Election Data Archive Project, printable brochures and downloadable PowerPoint presentations. Runs the Election Incident Reporting System (1-866-OUR-VOTE) Links to specific information about voting machines up for possible purchase in Pennsylvania. Links include first proposal for voter-verified paper ballots on electronic voting machines, by Pennsylvania activist Roberta Mercuri: "Explanation of Voter-Verified Ballot Systems" in The Risks Digest of the Association of Computing Machinery, July 24, 2002. Contains many posts about the issue from around the country. A compendium of news about voting-machine manufacturers. Includes links to multiple state groups. Report from the Association of Computing Machinery on the "risks of computer-based systems" of voting. Official site of the Governor's Election Reform Task Force The Department of State's guide to the federal Help America Vote Act.