E-Voting Two-Step: Paperless Ballots, No Recounts

With a possible presidential bid hanging in the balance, Texas and Ohio take different e-voting paths.

With so much on the line for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the March 4 presidential primaries in Texas and Ohio, election watchdogs will be closely monitoring the process for e-voting problems. Texas, in particular, will be closely examined as three of the state's largest counties deploy paperless ballots.

Ohio, which has its own undistinguished history of e-voting problems, hopes to avoid the national spotlight this time around by requiring paper ballots be made available to voters using touch-screen voting machines in 57 of the state's 88 counties. Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, will be using paper ballots.

In Texas, though, voters in Houston, Fort Worth and Austin will be using a paperless voting system developed by Hart InterCivic of Austin. "It is safe to say that a great deal of the votes in the Texas primary will be cast on paperless DREs [Direct Recording Electronic machines] and will not be verifiable," VerifiedVoting.org said in a review last week of the Texas voting systems.

According to VerifiedVoting.org, Texas uses a "smorgasboard" of voting systems, although most counties use some combination of DREs and scanning equipment systems. Texas law does not mandate a verifiable voting paper trail.

Hart InterCivic claims it has never lost a single vote in the elections using its "dial-and-button" system. Launched in 2003, Hart says it system of rotating dials and punch buttons is a simpler and more reliable system than touch-screen machines. What problems Hart has encountered, the company contends, are inevitably human errors.

Last week, an early primary voter in Austin cast a vote on a Hart system only to have the machine respond with "Reconnect to system to record vote." According to Hart, the malfunction occurred when a pin in the back of the machine became disconnected. Technicians cancelled the vote, rebooted the machine and allowed the voter to cast another ballot.

Even Hart machines receive high marks for reliability from election officials, election integrity groups are still skeptical. In fact, one group-VoteRescue-will engage in a bit of political theater March 4 by mounting a roulette wheel to a giant-size Hart InterCivic E-Slate voting machine and inviting the media to take a spin.

VoteRescue's "Wheel of Glitches" purports to demonstrate the "myriad of ways that electronic voting machines can secretly alter votes, totally unknown to the voters."

Paper Option in Ohio

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner moved in January to avoid controversy over e-voting machines by ordering paper ballots as an alternative for voters. Poll workers are not obligated to offer the paper ballots in the state's presidential primary but must have them on hand if a voter asks for one. Brunner said in the directive that the decision to provide alternative paper ballots was to "avoid any loss of confidence by voters that their ballots have been accurately cast or recorded."

Brunner, a Democrat elected in November, has also recommended that all Ohio counties switch to paper ballots by the fall general election.

Bruner's orders came after a $1.9 million study by her office assessed the security of the state's three electronic voting systems made by Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic and Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold). Testing was done on each system's performance, configuration and operations, and internal controls management.

Researchers had access to the computer source code provided by the voting machine manufacturers along with access to most of the equipment and documentation. According to the report, "fairly simple techniques" were often used by the testers to compromise the voting systems.

"To put it in every day terms, the tools needed to compromise an accurate vote count could be as simple as tampering with the paper audit trail connector or using a magnet and a personal digital assistant," Brunner said when the report was released.