Voting machines need paper trail


by Edward Cone
News & Record

Whom did you vote for in the last election?

Are you sure?

If you went to the polls in Guilford County, your vote was recorded by an electronic voting machine, but no paper ballot was generated in the process. This lack of a paper trail strikes many people as a big problem. Last week, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley announced that all voting machines in his state should be required to produce paper ballots.

Without a paper copy, the only way to check the voting record is to trust the computer to verify itself. Voters have nothing to check their vote against, while counts and recounts rely on the same potentially flawed data. The machine can tell you it recorded your vote accurately, but that's no more useful than listening to a tape recording of someone's voice, then replaying the same tape to decide if he was telling the truth.

The lack of a paper trail raises questions about the potential for fraud, accountability and trust in the electoral process. "Beyond security, there is the inherent dissatisfaction of having a box telling you who won, without verification," says David Dill, a Stanford computer scientist who served on the task force advising California's Shelley.

But George Gilbert, Guilford County's director of elections, says the case for a paper trail is overstated. Under Gilbert, a respected 15-year veteran of the job, Guilford was the first jurisdiction in the country to use touch-screen voting machines, and it has used them countywide since 2000.

Weighed against practical concerns, including cost and convenience, Gilbert believes that printing paper ballots isn't worth the trouble. He estimates that printing a ballot for every eligible voter (as required by law, even though most would be thrown away unused) would cost Guilford County almost $70,000 per election. The cost for large urban counties in other states might run 10 times that amount.

Adding paper also means slowing down the voting process, which costs more than time. Printers jam and break. "Every time you add 30 seconds to the process, you have to add another machine to avoid lines," says Gilbert. "Lines discourage participation." As for security, Gilbert points to his rigorous testing program and notes that even paper ballots can be tampered with. "There is no technology in the world, paper or electronic, that can guarantee integrity to an election," he says.

Ultimately, says Gilbert, fair elections rely on the people who run them. "Given proper procedures, integrity and capabilities, it's the liveware, the people and the process that make it work," he says.

Which is why I think the paper trail is probably a good idea. Not every county has the resources or personnel that we do in Guilford. Crooked elections are a very real threat, whether for reasons of politics or race or money. And the security of some voting machines has already been breached, with the software code that runs them posted on the Internet. "I do believe that 18-year-olds are sitting at home in their camouflage jammies, hacking these things," says Freddie Oakley, county clerk-recorder in Yolo County, Calif.

You don't have to buy into the more exotic conspiracy theories floating around on the Web to worry about threats to voter confidence in the process. It's a fact that the voting-machine market is dominated by a handful of politically connected companies with Republican ties. Any upset at the polls that favors the GOP, but offers no paper verification of the results, may be viewed by some as suspect -- and confidence in the process is essential.

Meanwhile, the electronic voting machines keep coming, pushed by a federal law called the Help America Vote Act, which requires the replacement of older machines like the ones used in Florida for the 2000 election. The act helps pay for new touch-screen machines but doesn't provide any funding for paper ballots.

Gilbert has his own reasons for disliking the Help America Vote Act. It requires states to centralize their voter registration databases and has encouraged some states to do away with local control and move to statewide voting systems. "That reduces security," he says. "Local control is the best security against widespread manipulation or fraud. We will end up with less diverse voting systems and a more concentrated industry."

Gilbert says he takes seriously the concerns of people like Stanford's Dill, who eschews the conspiracy stuff in favor of a scientific approach. "Any threats that people of his character and knowledge point out to us, we need to find responses to," says Gilbert.

There is something that the two already agree upon: The law aimed at fixing problems with voting machines is in some ways making things worse.

(More information can be found at; chapters of a book on the topic, edited by the News & Record's own Lex Alexander, can be downloaded from the site.)

Ed Cone (, writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

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