The Eletronic Voting Paper-Trail Debate

Today’s post comes from .

The United States Congress, like the State of South Carolina, has bills pending that address the problem of a paperless electronic voting system. We blogged about the dangers of the lack of a paper trail associated with the electronic voting system used in South Carolina, Trust But Verify


The lack of a paper trail has also spurred Congress to action on the issue. There are currently two pieces of Democrat-sponsored legislation still alive and proceeding toward becoming law. (A Republican-sponsored House proposal, , is dead.) The Republican legislation had the beauty of simplicity. The Democrat sponsored legislation is much more detailed and will be costly for states to implement. In addition, the Democrat bill imposes detailed federal requirements on states (unlike South Carolina) even if they already have existing systems for creating an electronic voting paper trail.

Below we provide links to the two bills. In addition, I quote from two House floor speeches to provide a sense of the argument about the issue on the federal level.

S. 2295: Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007

H.R. 811: Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007

From , the Federalism Argument-Utah already has a paper trail system:

We now have a proposal given to us by Members of the Democratic side that would force another change in the system that has just established under the Help America Vote Act, another system that requires even my State, which has a paper trail system in place, to change it because we don’t have the right kind of paper. The reality is I think, and I think that the Constitution and our Founding Fathers would tell us, if you really want to have a good election system just get out of the way and let the States fulfill their constitutional responsibility of the manner of election, and there would be greater efficiency and less likelihood of corruption. We should not be micromanaging States. One size does not fit all.

From Steve King (R IA) (the sponsor of H.R. 3500 above), one Flawed State System Could Effect The Nation:

I recall running across a significant amount of information that was compiled by the Collier brothers in Florida, and neither of these brothers happen to be alive today, for different reasons I understand. But one of the pieces of their documents, and they did a movie and there’s a fair amount of print material out there. They had gone into the warehouse where the vote counting machines, the punch card vote counting machines were stored, and they asked the fellow how is it that you rig a vote here. He said, well, it’s simple. He opened the drawer and pulled one of the plastic gears out of there and said we just grind one tooth off of these plastic gears, put them in the voting machine, and that puts in one extra vote for our guy out of every 10 votes that are cast.

Well, that will change most elections, Mr. Speaker. Something that open, that blatant in the annals of the public record of the United States. And so HAVA was passed here in Congress, the Help America Vote Act, all with good intention. I think they went too far with HAVA then and provided a lot of help for the local election boards.

One of the things that they did was require that there be the electronic voting machines; and the purpose of that, one of the foundational reasons for that was so that they could be operated by the blind, which means they need to be able to plug in earphones into that machine so that you can listen to the tones and vote. There were a lot of successes in blind voting with absentee ballots, and that wasn’t a concern that ever came to me; but it was an accommodation that actually was a significant component that altered these requirements that came out for HAVA.

So it would be nice to be able to accommodate the blind. They ask for very, very little. By the same token, it opened this system up now where we have electronic voting machines across this country where there is no legitimate means to audit the votes that are recorded on them. We have thousands and thousands of electronic voting machines that simply have a software trail, not a paper trail.

And as I mentioned about how the grinding a plastic tooth off of a plastic gear can change the results of the counting of the ballots, the punch card ballots in a place like Florida and many other places at that period of time, the software can do the same thing. We have something like 900 software engineers that have said that this software can be hacked, it can be altered; and of course I believe it can be.

. . . .

So whether there’s a Republican majority or a Democrat majority, whether there’s a Democrat or Republican in the White House, whether one side dominates the other side, it’s important to both sides of the aisle that we have a maximum amount of integrity in our electoral process.

So what I have done is drafted legislation that’s called the Know Your Vote Counts Act. It is very simple. It isn’t this expansive thing that adds a lot of conditions on and makes it so that the voting machines that are out there now are obsolete and have to be retooled and cost a lot of money. What it does is it requires a paper audit trail in all precincts.

So the electronic voting machines that are touchstone or touch key voting machines now can easily be retrofitted with a mechanism that scrolls that ballot out there so you can see it through a piece of Plexiglass, records your vote on it, and touch a button and say, yes, I like that vote, that’s how I voted, boom, drops down into the box. That is part of the paper audit trail.

It’s that simple. That’s the purpose of my bill. The purpose of it is to give that voter the complete confidence that the way they have cast their ballot is also the way that that ballot is recorded on the paper which becomes the audit trail; and then if there is an audit, the paper ballots are counted. That simple.

I mean, in Canada they just put a little X on the piece of paper, count those pieces of paper, and really don’t have a lot of problem. We need to have the paper trail because electronically you just simply cannot guarantee an audit trail.

And we’ve lived with some unreliable audit trails in the past. The old lever voting machines, I don’t think any of those are actually functioning at home anymore, but I voted with those old lever voting machines, and I didn’t realize at the time that you simply can’t really do an audit. You can go back, take it apart, look at that entire paper scroll that’s back there, but you really can’t do a legitimate audit.

And when something falls apart, when you have a meltdown, when you have a software failure or a hardware failure or you simply have a challenge to the integrity of the system, you have no way, Mr. Speaker, of knowing whether the electronic record that may remain on that hard drive, no matter how many redundancies you put into it, you can never assure that it hasn’t been hacked.

As much as you want to trust the system, you still can’t be sure of that. The only thing that you can trust is paper. We designate paper to be the trail. We stay out of the business of the States beyond that, but I believe it is to the interest of the Federal Government and the Congress and the people in this country to go to that step to ensure that when the next leader of the free world is selected that it is done with a process that has a maximum amount of integrity and the minimum amount of imposition of regulations on the States.