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Feds reject requirement that e-voting machines produce paper trail

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 by: Ben Kage
Tags: e-voting, electronic voting, health news

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(NewsTarget) Direct record electronic voting machines (DREs) that are considered "software dependent" -- meaning an undetected bug could lead to undetectable changes in election outcomes -- have been under fire since their implementation. Last week, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee narrowly rejected a proposal to have these machines produce a paper trail.

The proposal planned for all e-voting machines to be able to function independent of software and produce a paper trail that auditors could use to independently verify votes, and was put forward by Massachussetts Institute of Technology electrical engineering and computer science professor Ron Rivest. Rivest said that a bug that affects the outcome of an election was "the worst possible result from a voting point of view."

"You have an election result that's wrong, and you have no evidence to show you it's wrong," he said.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, under which the TGDC advises on electronic voting machine standards to the U.S. government, released a draft report to the 14-member committee, advising against the future use of software-dependent machines. The proposal was rejected in a 6-6 vote -- two members abstained or were not present -- with opponents saying that focusing on software as the primary problem was a mistake. Instead, the committee unanimously chose to adopt a resolution that advised the voting industry to come up with more "innovative" approaches.

A popular e-voting device known as an optical scan machine has been gathering support because it requires that a hand-marked ballot be inserted in order to tally the vote, which means it leaves behind a paper trail. There are already 35 states that are either in the process of implementing a paper trail in their voting procedures, or already have such a system in place, but the TGDC did not advocate a paper trail as the only solution. Rivest said it would be a shame if Congress required voting machines to have paper receipts, even though that currently seems like the best choice.

Donetta Davidson, a commissioner with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, told the committee that she didn't believe paper receipts were a cure-all measure, noting that some voting precincts had reported paper jams and other printer failures with paper voting machines. Davidson promoted alternate ideas.

"We should continue to research other forms of verification, because technology and solutions in this area, I believe, are rapidly increasing," she said.

Election officials have come out in opposition of replacing paperless machines, stating that there is insufficient evidence that shows a paper trail would increase vote accuracy or voter confidence. Rivest said that neither he nor the committee were suggesting that use of all paperless e-voting machines should be discontinued.

"Requiring software independence doesn't mean that this committee is saying existing DRE systems are insecure," he said. "What we're saying is we can't tell if they're secure or not."

The committee has until July 2007 to finalize its guidelines before they go out for public comment and EAC consideration.


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