Out of Touch

You press the screen. The machine tells you that your vote has been counted. But how can you be sure?

This winter, officials of Santa Clara County, where Stanford is located, proposed purchasing touch-screen machines. "So we basically got carloads of computer scientists to show up and speak up," Dill says, "and we got involved in their decision-making process." Dill and others argued that each machine should provide a paper-auditable trail. The county Board of Supervisors declined to do so; however, the scientists did win some concessions. "If the state makes clear regulations for a voter-verifiable audit trail, then the vendor has to add that feature at no cost," Dill explains. "Furthermore, there will be a pilot study in Santa Clara County where they will use printers to see how well they work." Dill has also been appointed to a statewide taskforce that will recommend changes in California voting regulations.

Paul Craft, who heads the Florida Division of Elections' Bureau of Voting Systems Certification, dismisses the worries of Dill and other scientist naysayers. "Basically, these people are crying about the black box and that you don't know how it works," Craft contends. "Well, in fact, we actually do know how it works. We thoroughly test it.

"By and large, the people talking about how easy it is to mess with these machines and how you can do it without being discovered and all that don't know what they're talking about. And if they do, then they need to come down and show us how easy it is to corrupt these machines so we can do something about it. My personal opinion is that the reliability and security of the machines is very high, and it would take a very, very large conspiracy of a whole bunch of people in order to do these things that they're suggesting and cover it up."

Colby Katz
After he lost a Boca Raton election last year, Emil Danciu and his daughter Charlotte sued the Palm Beach County elections office
Colby Katz
After he lost a Boca Raton election last year, Emil Danciu and his daughter Charlotte sued the Palm Beach County elections office

The need for a voting paper trail became clear to Emil Danciu and Al Paglia as they began questioning election returns in March and April of 2002. Shortly after those losses, their legal team contacted Rebecca Mercuri, an assistant professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania who is one of the leading critics of paperless voting systems.

"During [Election Day], many people said they were experiencing problems with the new equipment," Mercuri says. "These equipment problems were similar to those in Miami-Dade and Broward, which used ES&S machines, but these kinds of problems are endemic to touch screens." Those malfunctions include spontaneous lockups, misalignments that caused the wrong candidate's name to light up, machines needing to be reset, and rejection of voter cards, she says.

Still, the most serious problem, she declares, is missing votes. She points to the Paglia race in Wellington in which 78 people didn't cast a vote on the sole race. "Why would anyone get out of their bed in Palm Beach County to go to an election and then not bother to cast a vote for either one of the candidates? It's simply absurd," Mercuri exclaims. "Why would anyone even bother to go?"

Elections supervisor LePore was nonplussed in the wake of the election and remains so. "There could be several scenarios," she says. The first is that the ballots were in English only, and some voters could have hit the "cast your vote" button without realizing they hadn't voted, she says.

LePore continues, "The other scenario is: They knew there was an election. Everybody said, 'Go vote.' They got there and decided there was nobody they wanted to vote for and cast their ballot anyway, for whatever reason, maybe to maintain voting history."

Mercuri says such explanations defy common sense. Besides, it's not good enough to guess about what happened to missing votes.

In the Danciu case, Mercuri says, several precincts showed as much as 8 percent of the votes missing. "And it also seemed that in some machines in some districts, more votes were missing, particularly in Danciu's district, where he lived. All we wanted to do was get some machines impounded and examined by outside experts."

County commissioners were also pressing LePore for answers about the accuracy of the system they'd just purchased for $14.4 million -- on LePore's recommendation. In late April, Assistant County Attorney Leon St. John wrote a letter to the commission on behalf of LePore, stating that she considered a review by outside computer experts as "not appropriate, nor necessary" given the "rigorous" state and federal testing Sequoia machines underwent.

Commissioners and the congressional delegation, fearing that spring elections problems would lead to a debacle in the fall gubernatorial primary, continued to pressure LePore, who in May finally agreed to conduct a mock election to test the accuracy of the machines.

Paglia dropped his lawsuit around that same time. "I was just wasting my time with legal bureaucracy and folks calling me from newspapers," he explains. "I just had to wipe the slate clean, make a speech to our council urging them to support my successor, and not get so embroiled in a lawsuit against them and the supervisor of elections."

Danciu, however, battled on in court, hoping to get a look inside some Sequoia machines. "One of the things we requested was to see the records on the inspections of the machines that are maintained by the state," Mercuri says. She wanted to examine inspection reports, testing protocols, and codes on voting equipment. "They're supposed to be escrowed so that if there's an issue with the machines, you can get them out of escrow and examine them," she says. "We were denied all our requests to see any of those materials, and we were also denied our request to fully inspect a machine because of the trade-secret agreements that are signed with all these vendors. Unfortunately, the election laws in this country do not require that voting systems be sold under patent and copyright protection. That would be open information. Vendors have chosen to sell the equipment with restrictive trade-secret agreements that make it a felony to reveal how the machines actually work.

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