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Sarasota County and the Debate Over "Paper Trails"

Sarasota County and the Debate Over "Paper Trails"

By Warren Stewart
Wednesday 03 January 2007

The disputed election for Florida's 13th Congressional District has ramifications beyond who ultimately occupies that seat in the 110th Congress. Though Democrat Christine Jennings has challenged the election in state court and filed a formal contest of the election with the Clerk of the U.S. House, the new leadership has made it clear that Republican Vern Buchanan will be sworn in when the session begins on January 4th. Rep. Rush Holt has announced that he will file a Parliamentary Inquiry as soon as the new Congress convenes, clarifying that the seating of a Member-elect does not prejudice a pending contest over final right to the seat."

At issue are over 18,000 undervotes - votes that were lost or never recorded at all on the ES&S iVotronic touchscreen voting machines used for early and Election Day voting in Sarasota County, the largest of the five counties in the 13th District. After a mandatory recount, Buchanan held a razor-thin 369-vote margin of victory over Jennings but there has been no satisfactory resolution of the implausibly high undervote rate on the iVotronics.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the legal action and election contest, the experience of Sarasota County in 2006 should serve to focus the larger debate about the appropriate use of computerized equipment in the election process. There should no longer be any question that the use of entirely software dependent voting systems, which, like the 'paperless' touchscreen machines used in Sarasota County, provide no independent means of verification, is unacceptable in a democracy that depends on transparency and accountability in the election process.

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There seems to be little doubt that federal legislation requiring the minimum safeguard of a voter verified paper audit trail and mandatory hand counted audits will pass in the coming months, but many look at the situation in Sarasota County and question whether this is an adequate response.

How We Got Here

While direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems have been in use in some jurisdictions in the country since the 1980s, their use has increased significantly since 2000. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002 set in motion the most dramatic change in voting technology in the nation's history, with more than a third of American voters using new equipment in 2006, and many states and counties choosing to implement paperless DRE systems. These changes have been accompanied by a growing awareness and concern among citizens about the accuracy and integrity electronic voting in general and DREs in particular.

Facing what seemed to be an inevitable wave of touchscreen machines, the initial response of computer scientists and election reform activists was to require that these machines produce a contemporaneous paper record that the voter could verify before casting a vote electronically. This "voter verified paper audit trail" (VVPAT) would be retained and used in audits to verify, at least to some degree, the accuracy of the electronic tallies.

After initial resistance to VVPAT the four largest voting machine manufacturers developed printer attachments to their preexisting equipment. These printers were designed in the absence of standards or guidance and, not surprisingly, have proven to be disappointing at best. Many use thermal paper that cannot withstand multiple counts and most utilize a reel-to-reel mechanism, similar to cash register tapes that make auditing and recounting cumbersome. Many of the printed records are difficult to read or require the voter to constantly shift focus from the screen to the paper record. In practice the printers have proven to be prone to paper jams and other malfunctions that compromise their integrity and value as a check on electronic tabulation.

Many of the advocates and activists who initially supported the addition of VVPAT printers to DRE voting machines are now questioning the wisdom of the solution. The reassessment is based not only on the inadequacy of the current generation of printers, which presumably could be improved, but rather on a more fundamental rejection of the practice of direct electronic recording of votes.

Would a "Paper Trail" Have Helped?

In Sarasota County thousands of voters apparently failed to notice that their vote did not appear on the touchscreen review screen and there is no compelling argument to suggest that those or other voters would have noticed the missing vote on a VVPAT printer. If those voters were too rushed or inattentive to heed the undervote warnings presumably displayed on the summary screen, there is no reason to assume that those same voters would have made the effort to verify a VVPAT, or that having made that effort they would have spotted that they had undervoted.

Already during early voting, hundreds of voters in Sarasota County reported that their votes for the Jennings-Buchanan race disappeared from the screen. While Sarasota County Election Supervisor Kathy Dent had acknowledged these reports in a memo before the election, she refused to investigate or take the machines out of service. The final results showed that over 13% of the county's voters (over 18,000) hadn't registered a vote in the Congressional race countywide. But it's actually worse than that.

The undervote among Sarasota county voters that voted absentee - on paper ballots - was under 3%, similar to the rates among all voters in the neighboring counties of the 13th District, who voted entirely on paper ballots. This has the effect of lowering the countywide undervote rate. With absentee voters taken out of the equation, the official results would suggest that of the voters that used touch screen machines in Sarasota County, over 16% declined to state a preference in one of the most hotly contested Congressional races in the country.

While several explanations ranging from poor ballot design to voter disgust with negative campaign ads have been proposed to shift blame from the machines to the, the fact remains that the votes of many thousands were simply never recorded. The results of minimal official testing and audits of some voting machines supported the winner's claim that one in six of the voters in Sarasota County chose not to vote for either candidate, but experts and many Sarasota voters remained unconvinced. Their voice in choosing a representative in Congress was denied.

Marking vs. Reading

The problem is in the way voter intent is initially recorded. Whenever electronic voting machines are used, the initial count is generated with software, whether that count is derived from marks on paper or electronic impulses transmitted from a touchscreen to create a wholly digital record. VVPAT, at least theoretically, provides a "software independent" record that can serve as a means of verification for use in audits and recounts. (Paper ballots, of course, serve that function in situations in which ballots are counted by scanners.) But is that independent paper record a reliable record of voter intent and, given the considerable problems experienced with paper jams and other printer failures, would the primacy of the paper ballot hold up in court?

Many who have observed the implementation of electronic voting machines over the past several years, have come to the conclusion that a paper ballot, marked by the voter, whether by hand or through an assistive device when necessary, will more accurately reflect voter intent than a paper record that is merely read by the voter. Over a third of the states have already come to the conclusion that a paper ballot voting system, with ballots either counted by hand or with optical scanners is not only more accurate and reliable but it is also significantly less expensive.

Innovative ballot marking devices and telephone assistive systems have allowed 17 entire states and jurisdictions in another 16 states to retain paper ballot systems while still providing voters with disabilities and, where necessary, language minority voters with the opportunity to cast their votes privately and independently. Other states seem certain to follow the lead of New Mexico and Connecticut, where initial plans to purchase touchscreen voting machines were abandoned in favor of paper ballot systems.


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