Lawmakers call for e-voting paper trails

Contested elections point to the need for paper trails on e-voting machines, but some worry about the consequences of hastily imposing new standards

U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday called for electronic voting machines to include paper trail backups, while a government auditor said better security measures for the machines are needed.

A still-contested 2006 election for the U.S. House of Representatives in Florida's 13th district is a "prominent example of how, in some instances, electronic voting systems have produced unreliable results, raising concerns among voting-system experts and causing distrust among voters," said Representative William Lacy Clay, chairman of the House Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee.

In the Florida House election, more than 18,000 voters failed to cast ballots on e-voting machines, and the Republican candidate won by fewer than 400 votes.

Clay, from Missouri, and other Democrats called for paper trail printouts to be required as a way to audit results from touchscreen DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) machines. But Gracia Hillman, a member of the U.S. EAC (Election Assistance Commission), warned Congress not to rush into paper-trail requirements.

Hillman avoided taking a position on paper trail ballots during a subcommittee hearing. But at least 180,000 DREs across the U.S. would have to be upgraded or replaced if Congress required paper trails, she said.

"When you combine the introduction of new equipment, earlier primaries, and the enormous tasks of recruiting and training poll workers to meet a presidential election year deadline -- which is only a year and a half from now -- you have all of the ingredients of a recipe for colossal confusion," Hillman said.

Robin Carnahan, secretary of state for Missouri, also called on Congress to allow reasonable time frames for changes in e-voting requirements. "Don't do things that create expectations but can't be met by local election officials," she said.

Carnahan said the 2006 election in Missouri was "fair, accurate and secure." Voters there used optical scan and DRE machines with paper trails.

Other lawmakers seemed skeptical of the need for paper trails. Representative Bill Sali, an Idaho Republican, asked Hillman and Randolph Hite, director of information technology architecture and systems for the U.S. GAO (Government Accountability Office), if they knew of any e-voting machines that had been hacked during an election. Both said they were not aware of any.

But Hite called on state and local elections officials to pay more attention to e-voting security and machine life cycle.

Several groups have "raised significant concerns about the security and reliability of electronic voting systems," Hite said. "Many of these security and reliability concerns are legitimate and thus merit the combined and focused attention of federal, state, and local authorities."

In an extensive GAO review, the agency found that many jurisdictions did not use the most current voting system standards, and many do not consistently monitor election performance. Voting-machine best practices were implemented to "varying degrees," he said.

Security measures for e-voting machines "ranged from rigorous to ad hoc," Hite added. He called on the EAC to work with local and state election authorities to strengthen security measures.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.