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Paper Trails That Lead Nowhere

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Message Meg Cox
Voting rights activists have long been sounding the alarm about electronic voting machines that provide no paper record of citizens' votes. In the House district of former Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris, the lack of a paper trail may make it impossible to solve the mystery of 18,000 undervotes and determine the true winner in November's congressional contest--and hers is just one of many districts where valid recounts have been made impossible by paperless voting machines.

Finally the federal agencies charged with monitoring the conversion to electronic voting equipment are publicly declaring that machines without paper backup are problematic. The National Institute for Standards and Technology stated in a draft report released in November that paperless machines "cannot be made secure." In December the technical guidelines committee charged with advising the Election Assistance Commission grudgingly concurred that future voting machines should have an audit mechanism separate from the software within the machines. (The committee failed to pass a recommendation that existing machines be equipped with such a mechanism.)

What sort of audit mechanism is suitable? One popular solution is a paper printout that citizens can view to verify that their votes were recorded accurately. But these can carry a hidden problem: in some localities, voting machines stamp a bar code on the paper record, and it is the bar code, not the human-readable portion of the printout, that is the official record of each individual's vote.

Larry Quick of the Illinois Ballot Integrity Project points out that "at the grocery story, the price marked on a shelf of canned beans may not match the price that the bar code sends to the cash register. Computer error, human error, malfeasance--any of these can result in a mismatch. The same is true for bar-coded ballots. If a paper trail is to serve as the true custodian of the voters' intent, whether in the initial count or in a recount, then the human-readable record must be treated as the sole official record of each citizen's vote."
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Meg E. Cox is a freelance writer, editor, and book indexer in Chicago. She writes a monthly newspaper column on voting rights and electoral administration, and her feature articles have appeared in several national magazines.
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