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Republican county commissioner has concerns { March 4 2004 }

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Unlikely Allies
Blust, Williamson Share Voting Concerns
By Kathleen McFadden

Politically, Republican County Commissioner David Blust and Democratic Party activist Pam Williamson couldn’t be farther apart. Blust and Williamson hold very different views on a number of issues and rarely agree. But one of the mandates of the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 has the two of them seeing eye to eye. Neither favors the federal requirement for changing from the familiar punch-card system to a “direct-recording electronic system” — a computerized voting machine.

Blust has a number of concerns about the changeover, principally that not everyone is comfortable with computers. Blust cites elderly voters in particular as a group that could be intimated by having to vote via a touch-screen computer and is concerned that the machines could reduce voter turnout. “I think it will keep certain people away,” he said.

Blust also has a problem with the cost of the change. Subscribing to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, Blust objects to the billions of dollars that will be spent nationwide to comply with the law. And it’s not just a one-time cost. “The old way would have worked forever,” Blust said, “but technology changes every two, four or six years. Every time it changes, it means money. What a waste of taxpayers’ money. Here’s money that didn’t need to be spent.”

Blust pointed out that the Florida vote count debacle in 2000 — which led to the legislation —provided some good jokes and new words, such as chad, but maintains that the HAVA legislation is too extreme a response because punch card ballots aren’t as problematic as the Florida experience would seem to indicate. In a manual recount, Blust said, “when you hold those [ballots] up, you can tell the voter’s intent.”

Blust also has issues with the potential for questioning the results of an election conducted entirely on a computerized system without anything to back it up. “I think people will be concerned,” he said.

And that’s Williamson’s primary objection to direct-record systems — the lack of a paper backup. “I would oppose any voting machine that did not have any kind of paper trail,” she said. Williamson continued by pointing out that although she is “very comfortable with technology,” the direct-record machines provide “no way to go back and verify anything and no way to do a recount except with another machine.” She cited local elections in 2000 and 2003 that required manual recounts, a process that she describes as fair to both candidates and voters because of the open way in which recounts are conducted and the involvement of representatives from both parties.

In addition, Williamson said that despite her comfort level with technology, she still had questions about the process when she voted on a touch-screen machine in 2002.

She also cited the potential for computers to crash and lose votes. “Machines are great to have in terms of making things quicker and easier,” Williamson said, “but not in terms of reliability.” And she pointed out the potential for sabotage from computer hackers.

Her bottom line: “I’m totally opposed to them,” Williamson stated. “I think we ought to keep voting as simple as we can.”

The lost-vote and sabotage concerns are far from a Chicken-Little-type hyperbole, as mounting evidence shows the vulnerability of computerized voting systems.

Last October, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that iVotronic touch-screen machines, made by Election Systems and Software (ES&S) of Omaha, Neb., failed to record 294 votes. The machines were being tested at two locations, and election officials uncovered the problem when they discovered a discrepancy between the number of voters and the number of recorded votes.

Also last October, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology students posted thousands of pages of internal documents stolen from the computer network of Diebold, one of the country’s large computerized voting machine makers, maintaining that the documents — including internal memos — showed that the company is aware of significant flaws with its machines. Last July, computer scientists at Johns Hopkins and Rice universities who analyzed Diebold’s voting software said they found major security problems.

Stanford University computer science Professor David Dill also has a big problem with paperless voting and made a case for a “voter-verifiable paper audit trail” just last month at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dill is promoting the idea of federal legislation that requires every electronic voting machine to have an auditable paper trail. More than 1,600 technologists, 53 elected officials and almost 5,000 individuals have signed Dill’s Resolution on Electronic Voting (

Nevertheless, a study released last month by Election Data Services Inc. shows that just over 50 million registered voters are expected to cast ballots on electronic equipment this fall.

Reliability, sabotage and intimidation concerns aside, the county commissioners’ prebudget retreat showed that no one locally has a firm handle yet how much the new machines will cost. Watauga County currently has $313,678 set aside for the purchase or lease of new machines. Included in that total is a federal government grant for the changeover — $41,000 — that county officials have estimated will be approximately one-tenth of the total cost.

Money aside, buying or leasing new machines has been complicated by another federal level snafu. Created as part of HAVA was the United States Election Assistance Commission, but the U.S. Congress was tardy about actually forming the commission. According to Don Wright, general counsel for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, “Congress failed to appoint the EAC in a timely manner,” so a group that should have been operational in February 2003 is a full year behind and has not yet fulfilled a key task on its list of duties: developing and adopting voluntary voting system guidelines for replacement machines. Wright does not expect those guidelines to be released until 2005.

Without guidelines from the federal level, Watauga County Board of Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges told the commissioners at their prebudget retreat, the NC State Board of Elections has not been able to set requirements for North Carolina counties that must purchase new voting equipment. “For us to replace our punch-card system without the possible benefit of the EAC studies and guidelines would not be in the public interest,” Hodges said.

đ:Wright agrees. “What Jane has done in Watauga County is the wise thing,” Wright said. “It’s a very wise move on the part of the Watauga County Board of Elections not to be hasty.” Boards of Elections in Mitchell and McDowell counties, on the other hand, have already purchased new equipment and consequently run the risk that their new systems will not meet the to-be-developed guidelines and will not be certified.

Hodges has already tested machines from four companies — Fiddler and Chambers, Microvote, ES&S (makers of the iVotronic) and Advanced — and will test additional machines in the upcoming primary election. Through past testing, Hodges has uncovered problems with various machines and crossed those vendors off her list.

Yet another problem with the late formation of the EAC is a holdup in the second round of federal funding. According to Wright, North Carolina has been allocated $66 million, with $65 million already budgeted and approved. But because only the EAC can release those funds, the check isn’t in the mail. When those funds come, additional money could potentially come to the county for help with machine purchase, but Wright emphasizes that “it is up to the State Board of Elections to decide if the money will be used to help counties and in what amounts.”

For now, Wright said, “Watauga’s doing exactly what it should be doing — sitting tight.”

Neither guidelines nor additional funding, however, is likely to reconcile Williamson or Blust to the looming prospect of voting on a computer.

134 votes in florida not counted
California orange co supervisor wants audit 7000 flawed votes { March 10 2004 }
California voting methods prompt debate { March 2 2004 }
Computer voting snafus plague california
Emachines drop ballots
Es&s project manager fired { March 4 2004 }
Interview with es&s executive
Investigation into es&s glitches
Investigation will your vote count
Many states now using evoting { March 2 2004 }
Ohio contracts for electronic voting machines
Poll workers cite confusions poor training { March 7 2004 }
Republican county commissioner has concerns { March 4 2004 }
San bernardino county blames human error for delay { March 3 2004 }
San jose technical problems reported { March 2 2004 }
Scared of diebold vanderburgh county uses es&s
Smart cards bring other problems
Voted in md or not { March 7 2004 }

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