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Inside Politics

Electronic voting no magic bullet

Specialists seek input of academia, technology, election officials

By Marsha Walton

A voter slides her voter registration card into an e-voting machine.
A voter slides her voter registration card into an e-voting machine in a demonstration at this week's National Institute of Standards and Technology conference.

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National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST)
Electronic Voting Machine

GAITHERSBURG, Maryland (CNN) -- After the debacle of the dimpled ballots and "hanging chads" of the 2000 presidential race, many election officials looked to technology to come to their rescue.

They rushed to buy new, high-tech electronic voting equipment, expecting features such as touch screens to prove more reliable than older systems' punch cards.

But at a sometimes boisterous meeting of election officials, computer scientists and voting machine vendors this week in the Washington suburb of Gaithersburg, it seems clear that technology will not solve all.

Several well-publicized flaws in "e-voting," or electronic voting, systems have not led to improvements, said Harvard University computer professor Rebecca Mercuri.

"When such problems are exposed, no one appears to be held accountable," Mercuri said.

"Officials are not removed from their posts, fired or sent to trial; vendors are not banned from participation; equipment is not recalled; standards are not rewritten; and elections are not re-held," she said.

For example, strange flaws, she said, occurred this year in California, Virginia and Indiana.

The gathering at the National Institute of Standards and Technology illustrates that testing, certifying and implementing new voting technology takes place in a kind of multilevel, bureaucratic maze.

A measure called the Help America Vote Act of 2002, known as HAVA, was passed after the Bush-Gore race of 2000 turned into such a spectacle.

But getting the most accurate, secure and budget-friendly voting equipment is not just a matter of having an army of scientific experts at the NIST gathering set the standards. NIST, a part of the U.S. Commerce Department, doesn't have the authority to enforce any of its guidelines.

"I want to stress that NIST is a nonregulatory agency, and we recognize that our role is limited," said Arden Bement, NIST's director, as he addressed those attending the meeting titled "Building Trust and Confidence in Voting Systems."

And it's not always pretty.

"Quite often, standards development begins as a highly contentious process because people represent a variety of interests," Bement said.

Colorado Secretary of State Donetta Davidson stressed the human side -- rather than just the technological challenges -- of improving voting systems.

She said the average age of her poll workers and election judges is about 70. And no matter how good the equipment is, those people have to make it work.

"We need to develop a team [that brings together] the scientists and the common people," said Davidson, who is also the treasurer of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

"I would like everybody that is one of these scientists to be an election judge and help in running an election so they'd know and understand it, and I think that would help."

Other election officials appear a little more optimistic.

Tom Wilkey of the National Association of State Election Directors said U.S. voters should have a basic trust in the election system.

"I think they should be very confident. No one wants to fail. What NIST brings to the table is the ability to bring the very best in academia, technology and elections to work together," Wilkey said.

Electronic voting machine vendors are vocal in asserting that their systems are secure.

"In order to allay some fears, we have developed a paper-receipt printer that goes with these machines that is completely 'retrofit-able' to our machines," said Russell Huffman of Sequoia Voting Systems.

A model of an e-voting machine.
This model of an e-voting machine, displayed at the conference, features a touch screen and a privacy pod.

Federal legislation has been introduced to make a paper trail a mandatory part of every electronic voting machine, as a backup to technology and another tool to ensure accuracy.

To help deal with some harsh criticism about e-voting concerns, some vendors have decided to come up with their own working group, known as the Election Technology Council. The six vendors will work with the Information Technology Association of America to address issues of security and ethics.

But don't look for a lot of changes and upgrades during the 2004 presidential election. Change comes slowly in these multiple levels of government.

"Really, it's going to be 2006 before we see any really updated equipment with updated standards," said Harvard's Mercuri.

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