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Voting Blind

E-voting ignites local, state and national controversy

By Tara Treasurefield

"The League National Board has taken a position against a paper trail for electronic voting machines. They're wrong, of course," says Tony Miller, one of many men who belong to the League of Women Voters. Though he is smiling, he isn't joking.

Miller is legal counsel in the Elections Division at the California Secretary of State's office. Speaking to a Petaluma audience at a forum sponsored by the Sonoma County chapter of the League of Women Voters on Jan. 17, Miller helped to highlight a fiery debate between the national League and members of local chapters.

An open letter to LWV president Kay Maxwell argues for a neutral stand on paperless voting. As of Jan. 19, 301 members in 25 states have signed the letter, which is available online at www.leagueissues.org. Given that the LWV doesn't encourage intermember dissent but generally works through consensus agreement, some 300 naysayers is significant. The letter concludes: "We cannot remain silent in the face of a position that can be dangerous for our democracy and embarrassing for the League."

The controversy within the LWV isn't just a tempest in a teapot. The League has a well-deserved reputation as a reliable source of nonpartisan information about elections and voting, and with that comes a substantial amount of influence. Established 80 years ago, the LWV makes candidate profiles, ballot issues, election results and other political literature available through a variety of means, including website www.smartvoter.org, and promotes organizations such as Project Vote Smart.

But the LWV National Board's advocacy of an issue as monumental and controversial as paperless voting is different. Electronic voting machines have a history of questionable and clearly erroneous election results, and the nation's top computer scientists, as well as studies undertaken at Johns Hopkins University and other credible organizations, have publicized the risks of trusting voting machines that don't produce a paper trail.

A recent example was the special election this month in Broward County, Fla., to fill a state House seat, where the victor won by only 12 votes and 137 of the electronic ballots were blank. Florida law requires a manual recount in such close elections but because there are no paper ballots, a recount isn't possible. Yet there's a 10-page defense of paperless voting at the LWV's official website, www.lwv.org, and on Jan. 9, its legislative director, Lloyd Leonard, supported the system in an interview on National Public Radio.

Former Santa Rosa City Council member Marsha Vas Dupre says, "Many of the people in our Sonoma County League, being the outspoken rabble-rousers we are, are very concerned. We believe in a paper trail. It sounds very reasonable to me. It's an opportunity for voters to have a second look at how they cast their vote. [The ballot] is behind a closed window, but once they OK it, that's what goes into the record as a backup. I can't see that as anything other than positive. I don't know how anyone in their right mind would be against that."

One reason the LWV support paperless voting is that it wants to help people with disabilities gain equal access to the polls. It's much easier for disabled voters to use electronic voting machines than paper ballots and pencils, and they don't want anything or anyone to discourage the use of these machines.

Under the leadership of Jim Dickson, the American Association of Disabled People fiercely opposes all e-voting machines that produce a voter-verified paper ballot. However, Melanie Brunson, acting executive director of the American Council of the Blind, says, "We oppose the systems that require the voter to visually verify a paper ballot." Though the council hasn't taken an official position yet, Brunson says voting machines that produce a paper ballot would probably be acceptable if they also provide an auditory method for blind voters to verify their ballots.

Mervis Reissig of Santa Rosa, who attended the elections forum, appreciates the concerns of disabled voters. "I empathize with their need for touch screens," she says. "But still, forcing those machines down everybody's throat at a huge expense and huge security concerns that we still have--the two just don't seem to jibe in my mind."

Last November, California secretary of state Kevin Shelley announced that by July 2006 all electronic voting machines used in state elections must produce a voter-verified paper audit trail. To meet the needs of blind voters and to be consistent with state and federal law, he also requires e-voting machines to include a "nonvisual method" of ballot verification. Several e-voting equipment manufacturers already offer models that both produce a paper trail and provide audio for blind voters, but they're not yet certified in California.

Shelley's paper audit trail requirement has earned him both praise and blame, and on Jan. 15, some 100 people attended a public meeting of the secretary of state's California Voting Systems Panel in Sacramento. Touch-screen voting machine and optical scanner manufacturer Diebold Election Systems was at the top of the agenda.

An audit of the company last month found that uncertified software was running on its equipment in each of the 17 California counties that uses it. The panel convened to decide whether to decertify Diebold and/or bar it from selling its e-voting equipment in the state, finally deciding to postpone any action until additional requested documentation from Diebold is received. The panel then opened the meeting to public testimony.

More than 50 people spoke, and, except for a few disabled voters and elections officials, all expressed concerns about paperless voting machines. A speaker from Calaveras County nearly cried during his testimony. Judging by the applause, he spoke for many in the audience. "The day I turned 18 and got the right to vote, I registered," he said. "I'm now 37, and I have voted in every election since then. Turning over my vote to a computer frightens me."

Kim Alexander, director of California Voter Foundation, says that unless something changes soon, 40 percent of the state's electorate will be voting on paperless e-voting machines in the March 2 primary. "One thing the secretary of state can and hopefully will do is to seek some new legislative authority from the state capital to give him more power to punish vendors who behave improperly and install voting systems that don't comply with California rules and law," she says.

But vendors aren't all bad, assures Janice Atkinson, Sonoma County's assistant registrar of voters. "The legislature has to take responsibility for some of this, including the situation that Diebold finds itself in. The legislature has changed the way we count the votes, at least in primary elections, for every election of the last five primaries. We don't do it the same twice. These poor vendors have a program that's written one way, and the legislature comes along and [changes the rules].

"Were it not for our vendors, we wouldn't be counting votes in this state. They bend over backwards to meet our needs. I couldn't have laid out the ballot, even in [the March 2] election, without the help of our vendor. They work nights and weekends. When we're accused of socializing with vendors and with other elections officials, maybe it's because we have no other life. These are the only friends we have. They're my best friends in the world.

"I'm still in favor of a voter-verified paper audit trail, because I think it's very necessary. I wouldn't have an electronic system in my county without one. But we [elections officials and vendors] have gotten to the place where we're all we've got. I have met and know some of the Diebold staff, and they have all been very honest, upstanding individuals who, as far as I can tell, work very hard to provide services to their customers."

Greg Dinger, webmaster and point person for www.verifiedvoting.org, sees it differently. "Our forefathers died for the right to a democratic process," he says. "These [paperless] machines are a direct assault upon voters' confidence that our electoral system is functioning properly, and that our governmental representation is a reflection of the will of the majority of the voters."

Dinger is promoting two bills that are currently before Congress: HR 2239 in the House (Holt), and S 1980 (Graham) in the Senate. If passed, these two pieces of legislation will require all electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail by the general election of 2004, not 2006.

"We need every citizen concerned about this issue to make multiple contacts with their legislators in the form of telephone calls, letters and personal meetings with the legislative staff of both their congresspersons and senators until those legislators unequivocally commit to the passage of HR 2239 and S 1980," he says. "It's going to take some doing to get these bills passed into law, and then they have to be implemented at a very accelerated pace. If we don't get the bills passed in the next few weeks, it's not going to make a difference for November 2004."

Beth Grimes, a 78-year-old Petaluma resident and activist, also believes that democracy is at stake. "I worry about the future of my children and grandchildren," she says. "It seems to me that voting machines that don't produce a paper trail would be the last nail in the coffin of anything resembling democracy in this country."

A freelance writer and activist, Tara Treasurefield speaks on e-voting at New College on Thursday, Feb. 19, at 7pm. 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $5. 707.568.0112

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From the January 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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