How Safe is Paper Voting?

Activists are pushing voters to use absentee ballots in the face of electronic voting machine mishaps. But paper can be hacked, too. (Baseline)

Fearful that computerized balloting systems will eat their votes in November, many citizens are seeking the safeguard of a traditional technology that is thousands of years old: Paper.

The catch? Paper may not be any more foolproof.

"If you were a crook who wanted to cook an election, youd probably attack it through the absentee ballot system," says University of Iowa computer science professor Doug Jones, who has studied the problems of ensuring election integrity. "There is real vulnerability there, and you dont have to be a rocket scientist to exploit it."

Activist groups such as Verified Voting, MoveOn and TrueMajority are crying out for a "voter verified paper audit trail" as a backup in areas where touch screen voting machines are used.

If they cant get that, many of their supporters are determined to vote absentee instead.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., home of the 2000 presidential elections infamous "butterfly ballot," voter requests for absentee ballots were running about three times higher than normal leading up to an August primary. In a state where George W. Bushs 537-vote victory over Al Gore in 2000 magnified every real or imagined voting irregularity, the volume of absentee votes is likely to swell this year.

Floridas voting problems in 2000 largely revolved around a type of paper ballot, the punch card. The use of punch cards was subsequently banned in Florida, and 15 Florida counties adopted touch screen voting machines. Others picked optical scan systems, where voters color in circles on a paper card.

Touch screen devices seemed as though they would eliminate a lot of errors because they allow voters to review their choices on a confirmation screen before casting their ballot. But in 2002, Florida was back in the news because of problems with malfunctioning or improperly operated electronic voting devices.

Suddenly, voters nationwide started wondering whether the cure was worse than the disease, as more electronic voting mishaps cropped up across America.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read eWEEK News Editor Scot Petersens take on the underachievement of e-voting.

Machine interfaces were criticized as difficult and confusing. Johns Hopkins University researchers poked holes in the information security of Marylands vote-counting networks. Balloting machine manufacturer Diebold inspired particular paranoia among Democrats following reports that CEO Walden ODell was active in President Bushs reelection campaign. And there was no assurance that votes taken electronically would be taken correctly, or that results could not be manipulated by rogue programmers or hackers.

Next Page: Is absentee voting better than electronic voting?