Paper-trail perspective

Congress is reconsidering the changes it made to election administration after the 2000 Florida election mess. Foremost on the agenda are concerns about the security and proper functioning of electronic voting machines. The push for paper trails on these ATM-like machines makes sense, but Congress would be wise to ignore the voices that are pushing for changes by the 2008 elections or for the elimination of all electronic voting machines in favor of paper ballots cast by hand.

The bipartisan Help America Vote Act (HAVA) provided substantial funds to states and localities to buy new voting machines. HAVA required machines to limit spoiled ballots, many of which were not counted because voters overvote (e.g., cast two votes for presidential candidates) or undervote (e.g., failed to register a choice for president). In practice, these requirements caused states to move away from punch cards, lever machines and other systems and to buy two types of machines: (1) optiscan machines, with which a voter fills in bubbles on a sheet of paper like a standardized test, and (2) electronic voting machines, with which voters indicate their choices on a screen like an ATM.

Electronic voting machines have virtues. They are good at preventing human error in voting, they’re accessible to the disabled and they do not have the problems associated with paper, such as chain-of-custody issues and paper jams.

But there’s the rub. Because the early electronic voting machines had no paper backup, how could voters ensure that the votes they had entered on the computer screen were accurately recorded? What if a software glitch wiped out votes or switched them to another candidate? Or even worse, what if a hacker surreptitiously programmed the machine to favor one candidate? At least with an optiscan machine, the voter fills out a piece of paper that remains after it is counted by a machine. The paper can be recounted or used to spot problems.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have introduced the leading bills in this Congress, and their general thrust of moving toward paper trails makes sense. States are already moving in that direction. While paper trails that have been introduced in recent years have been far from perfect, they are likely to improve over time, and they provide a useful check on electronic voting machines’ accuracy.

But election administrators have weighed in with a dose of reality. There is no way to implement nationwide paper trails by the 2008 elections, nor by 2010. House leaders have floated a compromise to delay implementation, but to require simple cash register-style paper trails in 2008. This also will not work.

The expedited timeline for these changes is driven by activists who are convinced that manufacturers like Diebold or clever hackers are likely to commit massive voter fraud. Some have even come to the position of opposing electronic voting machines altogether, even those with paper trails. They now advocate for voting on paper alone, counted by hand. While this might work in some parliamentary systems, where voters cast a single vote on a ballot, try counting ballots by hand in California, with 20 offices up for election and 20 more referenda. And paper ballots are also susceptible to fraud through ballot-stuffing or lost or defaced paper ballots.

What is needed is a modest push for paper trails, with flexibility for states and federal money to help states move in that direction over a six-year period.

This modest approach will not please those who now favor voting only on paper. One request: If you have comments about this column, no e-mails, please — write to me on paper.


Fortier is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.