Out of Touch

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

"In court, the county's attorney said that it would be considered a third-degree felony for Theresa LePore to reveal the internal operations of how the machines work. You can't inspect it, you can't get the codes, you can't open it up. All of the inspections that are done, not only by the state but the National Association of State Election Directors, are all done under trade-secret protection."

Of course, trade-secret protection has applied to many products, Mercuri points out, such as in civil lawsuits against Goodyear alleging it manufactured defective tires. In certain cases, examiners for the defense will sign trade-secret agreements and then provide a sealed opinion to the judge. "But we were getting so much resistance that it was unlikely the judge would have granted that," she says. "But why would you even have these state laws that things need to be escrowed if no one can ever see it? It's bizarre."

In late July, Circuit Judge John Wessel denied Danciu's motion to allow a computer expert to examine voting machines, but he did order LePore to provide Danciu a "walk-through inspection" of the equipment used in the March election. The machines, however, were in a mode that allowed them only to continue to print out a total; Mercuri says she and her client learned nothing from that.

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

Mercuri was able, however, to watch the machines being tested for the 2002 primaries. From that, she learned that the test is limited to casting a ballot for the first candidate for each race on the machine. "In the case of the Danciu race, in which this was the first time the machines were used, he was third on the ballot," Mercuri says. "So he was never tested before the election. They never test the ballot face for every candidate in every race. Unfortunately, that's standard procedure. It's not standard elsewhere in the [computer] industry, but it is for voting machines."

Like a mounting number of computer scientists, Mercuri maintains that the only way to keep touch-screen voting on the up-and-up is to allow voters to review a paper receipt after casting their vote.

"Think about it: Our whole identity system is paper," she explains. "We've got paper ID cards, licenses, passports. When you make an ATM transaction, you get paper. And certainly when you buy a lottery ticket, which are sold in the millions, you wouldn't pay your dollar and then have them call you if you win. You want that ticket!"

She describes the paperless machines as having "an Enron style of audit: It's an internal audit, and it's going to be shredded afterward."

The Florida Division of Elections doesn't allow paper receipts on touch screens, says Paul Craft, whose office certifies all new equipment, because no company has applied for testing of such machines. Regardless, Craft opposes the idea. "The question becomes, what is going to be the official source of your election results?" he says. "If it's going to be the paper, then use paper, and count the paper and that's going to be the results. If you're going to do it electronically, do it with a secured system that's been properly tested and has proper logs and ballots."

New Jersey-based Avante International Technology offers a touch-screen machine that provides paper receipts, says James Minadeo, a technical-support manager with the firm. The company hit a brick wall, however, when it tried to get its machine certified in Florida in the fall of 2001. Craft informed the company that to qualify for certification, Avante would have to provide machines to count absentee ballots, which it did not manufacture at that time. Craft also told Minadeo that the paper receipts would violate state law because votes must be cast in secret. Minadeo contends that the receipt system was sufficient, but the company dropped its attempts to enter the Florida market.

Oliphant says she and other election supervisors wouldn't welcome back paper. "We sit on the canvassing board, and we have to sit there and determine whether that's a vote," she explains. "We don't like being in that position. But with technology, it's 100 percent accurate. It's either a vote or not a vote."

LePore, who calls skeptical scientists like Mercuri a "vocal minority," also opposes receipts. "First of all, we had paper, and those were called punch cards, and nobody liked them," she jokes. She adds that "if someone really wanted to play games with the process, they could, when they get a receipt, say, 'This isn't how I voted.' How would we know that?

"The other reason is, once the receipt is printed, the vote's already cast. What if they say that's not what they voted for? You can't take it back."

"That's our point exactly!" Charlotte Danciu shrieks, literally tugging on her hair over LePore's logic. "She just doesn't get it. Receipts will uncover problems. That's what her job is: to make sure we have every vote counted."

Judge Wessel dismissed Danciu's case in November 2002, maintaining that even if Danciu were given all the votes cast in the six precincts the lawsuit had questioned, he would not have won the election. The younger Danciu calls the decision "simplistic" and missing the underlying point of a systemic problem. They chose not to appeal the decision primarily because of the expense. "To this day," she says, "we believe that election was stolen from my father."

Although he dropped his suit, Paglia says he's not convinced that more problems won't crop up in future elections. "We never found, for the good of the government or the people," he says, "the true reason why those machines malfunctioned."

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