E-voting grows without consensus

State and local election officials, looking to meet federal voting regulations, are buying electronic voting gear despite a lack of best practices guidance and money.

The deadline for meeting the mandates of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which requires that an e-voting machine be installed at every polling location, is the first election after Jan. 1, 2006.

Governments are buying the gear in the midst of a continuing controversy over the reliability and security of e-voting machines, the lack of a so-called paper trail of votes from some systems, and the fact that there are few lists of systems and best practices certified by state or federal agencies.

Complaints this week from some election officials came days after the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report contending that questions about the security and accuracy of electronic voting systems are likely to continue into the 2006 elections.

The GAO called on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to define security policies and set up a machine certification program.

HAVA was passed after the controversial 2000 presidential election in order to correct shortcomings in voting practices and equipment. It mandates a number of changes to improve the reliability of balloting systems and processes.

Voting districts not meeting the deadline face penalties issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, said a spokeswoman for the Election Assistance Commission, which is charged with helping to implement HAVA mandates.

One of the bones of contention is that no guidelines have been set up to ensure that machines meet the federal requirements, officials said. For example, a number of local officials want to implement e-voting systems that provide paper trails, but there are no federal criteria for doing so.

“The [GAO] report buttresses what we’ve been saying,” said Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections in Florida’s Leon County, which uses optical scan devices that have to be supplemented with e-voting machines under the HAVA law. “There are concerns [that] need to be addressed,” he said, citing both potential electronic and human errors.

The government is forcing a rush into e-voting without having established adequate technological guidelines, said Matthew Zimmerman, staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights advocacy group that focuses on technology issues.

To ensure that e-voting machines are accurate, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania mandated that vendors provide source code, said Leonard Piazza, director of elections in Luzerne County, Pa.

Currently, Luzerne County uses lever-activated devices, but $5 million has been set aside to buy e-voting machines, Piazza said. The county hopes to buy machines that offer paper trails but is awaiting a list of machines that have been certified by the state, he said.

The matter of vote validity aside, there is still the cost to consider, said some officials. For example, Lubbock County, Texas, installed US$2.6 million worth of e-voting machines from Austin-based Hart InterCivic Inc., said County Commissioner Ysidro Gutierrez. The cost “was a financial burden to the county,” Gutierrez said.

Related links:

County in legal spat over e-voting machine purchase

New Jersey to get e-voting paper trail by 2008

Report questions progress on e-voting standards

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