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Published: 5/17/2004

Ongoing 'paper trail' debate undermines voter confidence

Obscured by the smoke that has enveloped the debate over electronic voting machine security is one simple fact: No matter whether a voter, after making his selections, sees those choices displayed on a computer screen or on a little slip of paper generated by the voting terminal, the data comes from the same place - a computer memory chip imbedded in the machine.

Democratic lawmakers Teresa Fedor, a state senator, and Peter Ujvagi, a state representative, have made noise lately that all touch-screen voting equipment should have a "voter-verified paper audit trail" that could be used in case a recount is required. They have said it is not enough that each machine has its results saved onto a memory card, that an independent record needs to be generated.

But that independent record is nothing of the sort, industry experts say. It is simply a paper copy of the same data that is stored in the voting machine. No matter where, or when, or in what form those voting results are displayed, they will always come from the same source - a computer memory chip embedded in the machine.

The pair of lawmakers have said the "paper trail" is needed to establish the confidence of voters in electronic voting equipment, but Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell said that, if anything, Ms. Fedor, Mr. Ujvagi, and others in the General Assembly have fed voter uncertainty.

That erosion of confidence is "an unintended consequence of their 11th-hour intervention," Mr. Blackwell said last week during a visit to Toledo. More than a year after a Blackwell-appointed election reform committee, including Republicans, Democrats, and members of the General Assembly, established standards for implementing the federal Help America Vote Act, more lawmakers decided to get into the act, sidetracking the reform effort.

The secretary acknowledged the legislative intervention was, in part, a political slap at him as he begins his 2006 campaign for governor.

"No one questions the legislature's authority to establish standards for voting machines. The fact that we were engaged in a process of evaluation and contract negotiation, and were on the verge of deployment before the legislature got seriously interested in the process, has fanned the flames of fear, and that has had, unfortunately, "a corrosive effect" on voter confidence, the Mr. Blackwell said.

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Sam Thurber, a Republican member of the Lucas County Board of Elections who works as an electrical engineer by day writing computer programs similar to those that drive electronic voting machines, has been more or less silent on the issue, despite his expertise. But no more.

"There is a staggering amount of bad science and bad information out there," he said. "If Ujvagi and Fedor had taken the time to learn these systems from an engineering point of view and a voting process point of view, they could have spent all their time and energy on building voter confidence instead of undermining it."

Mr. Thurber said he thinks the local Democrats are simply engaging in partisan politics, working to sideline the purchase of touch-screens from Diebold Elections Systems of McKinney, Texas, because the company's chief executive officer is a big fund-raiser for President Bush. The lawmakers organized a campaign-like protest group to show up at last week's elections board meeting.

"We had a guy out there with a sign that simply said 'No Diebold.' It didn't matter to him that any other vendor out there has exactly the same concerns with their system that Diebold has with theirs. As far as he was concerned, it was a 'No Diebold' issue," Mr. Thurber said. "And when you hear Representative Ujvagi or Senator Fedor speaking, they speak on those terms. They have an anti-Diebold point of view, the science behind it be damned."

Ms. Fedor and Mr. Ujvagi deny political considerations are involved, pointing to their significant bipartisan victory - the passage of that new state election reform law requiring all touch-screen machines in Ohio to have a paper receipt printer by the May, 2006, election. Republican Gov. Bob Taft, himself a former secretary of state, signed the measure.

Ms. Fedor said its passage has restored her confidence in the legislative system.

But if politics played a role in her calculations, she may be disappointed in the end. An aide to Mr. Blackwell said it is very possible only one company will be able to meet the rigorous scientific and reliability standards that the added voter receipt printer will require, and as a result of the new bill, that company may have a lock on tens of millions of dollars in touch-screen business in Ohio.

That company: Diebold.



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