Joe Baker: Mandates bog down upcoming elections

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that about half the states are not meeting the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). The act furnished $3.1 billion to the states to replace paper punch-card ballots with electronic machines.

The law also mandates the states to make sure that blind and disabled voters can cast secret ballots using the new technology. The deadline for all this passed Jan. 1.

In addition to the scramble to get, test and install these machines, many questions exist about their accuracy, reliability and security. Also, many complaints were filed in the 2000 and 2004 elections about “irregularities” with these machines, and the Government Accounting Office (GAO) verified a considerable amount of fraud in the last presidential election in Ohio.

Today, Ohio and California are among 25 states requiring these machines to print out a paper verification of voting results. That adds time and money to the process of correcting election machinery. The change-over is causing much confusion and anxiety in California where 58 registrars are hurrying to get their machines ready for the state’s primary in June.

This will be California’s first election with HAVA standards, but purchase and testing of electronic voting machines is being delayed because of state requirements for a paper trail capability. Voting officials, because of this, are concerned about federal lawsuits and disgruntled, disabled voters.

Officials of the California Secretary of State’s office said they are still trying to decide which of seven kinds of machines—including touch-screen and optical scan—will be approved. In turn, they are waiting for federal officials to finish their certification of approved machines and checking how to add paper printouts to the existing machines in time to meet California’s deadline next summer.

Kristin Heffron, chief deputy registrar and county clerk for Los Angeles County, said: “We are in limbo, we are in uncertainty, and we are getting more frustrated by the day. We have a federal deadline that just passed, a state deadline that is coming, and we are scratching our heads over what to buy while the state tries to certify machines that meet their standards.”

There was widespread voter anger in the 2004 election after the votes were counted in Ohio, and new doubts arose as to how to conduct a recount with electronic voting machines that had no way to verify votes.

Dan Seligson, editor of, a Web site tracking election reform, commented: “The American voting public has really gone full circle on this issue. After 2000, where people wanted to eliminate the need for paper and punch cards, and older systems, they felt weren’t reliable. Then in the past few years, there is growing concern with electronic systems. Federal and state officials are caught in the middle trying to address all these concerns.”

Computer science groups, academics and others have insisted a voter verification paper trail is necessary because public trust in the vote-count systems is paramount for a return to greater participation in elections.

“Imagine the scenario where as a voter you choose candidate A, but the machine scores it for candidate B and yet displays a vote for A,” said David Dill, founder of “If you try to recount it later without any paper verification, the machine will keep telling you the same thing over and over.”

The Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco think tank, is critical of the paper trail idea. “Passing sweeping laws…to require voter-verified paper trails (VVPAT) for touch-screen machines, though well-intentioned, could bankrupt cash-strapped counties and may erode the efficiency of electronic voting management,” said Vince Vasquez, co-author of a briefing paper about the subject.

Part of the higher cost results from requirements that states must meet both paper trail and disability needs, and buy the appropriate machines. Unanswered questions still stand, such as how a blind person could verify that a strip of paper has correctly recorded his or her vote.

Dan Tokaji, a political scientist at Ohio State University, observed: “As a nation, we are in a very difficult situation right now because states and counties have had ample time to comply with HAVA laws, but are being hindered by VVPAT requirements. At the moment, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to comply with VVPAT and the disability requirements given the existing state of technology.”

From the Feb. 1-7, 2006, issue

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