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Monday, March 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
E-voting is inevitable, despite flaws


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Imagine if your grocery store told you it wasn't giving out receipts any more because everything is scanned and the computer is never wrong.

Or what if your bank decided to quit giving you statements with the reassurance that "the computer's keeping track of everything, so don't worry."

It sounds preposterous, given the current state of technological reliability. Yet there's one significant part of our lives where we're being told no receipt is necessary, just trust the computer.

I'm talking about touch-screen voting. Because of the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 after the presidential election debacle in Florida, a sweeping conversion to electronic voting is under way. In most cases, e-voting involves using a touch screen with no printed confirmation.

About 50 million voters are expected to use touch screens in the November election. But concerns have led most Washington state elections officials to hold off on their adoption, although Snohomish County moved to them exclusively in fall 2002.

To put the discussion in context, it should be noted that we hear a lot more about e-voting's perils than its successes. In a recent round of primaries, news reports focused on glitches at polls in Georgia, Maryland, New York and Ohio. California seemed particularly star-crossed, with 7,000 Orange County voters experiencing some kind of problem, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In Snohomish County, though, preparedness, training and voter education have enabled officials to conduct several elections electronically without a hitch, noted County Auditor Bob Terwilliger. Surveys show voters like touch-screen voting, and Terwilliger said he has received only a handful of e-mails expressing concern. Adding printed ballots to the process would be expensive for a county with a tight elections budget, he added.

Whatever the breakdown rate, two things are clear: E-voting is inevitable, simply because it is so much more efficient. More significant, it's a system that generally works and whose flaws can be fixed.

Most e-voting today is done on proprietary systems supplied by four major vendors — systems that Renton-based e-voting activist Bev Harris calls "black-box voting." One promising solution, offering a paper audit and mechanisms for independent review, ironically would "open up" e-voting, using free, easily inspected, open-source software.

I say "ironically" because the approach seems counterintuitive. With voting being a sensitive procedure, wouldn't we want the most untouchable, locked-up system available?

The answer seems to be no. An open-software approach goes on the theory that the more eyes watching, the more secure the process.
 
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"With paperless e-voting, over time people will see where the holes are, and there will be an opportunity to literally steal an election," warned Alan Dechert, a California elections-software activist whose nonprofit Open Voting Consortium plans to demonstrate a step-by-step, secure electronic-voting procedure April 1 in San Jose.

The ambitious concept behind the consortium is to rent computer equipment to counties for election use. The open-source software would be free, keeping costs down. The approach would save counties maintenance and storage fees associated with voting equipment, which can be sizable. There are 200,000 polling precincts in the country, each averaging 500 ballots. Optimally, one computer is required for each 70 ballots cast, Dechert said.

Besides security, the consortium's approach would provide a paper audit trail. Upon completion of entries, each voter would be given a printed-out ballot and a privacy folder. The voter could then check for accuracy and submit the ballot. The folder would cover the text, showing only a bar-code readout for tabulation.

So far, the momentum behind "black-box voting" is strong, but it's still early. Solutions such as the Open Voting Consortium prove that e-voting, properly executed, can offer reassurances of its accuracy. That's all any voter in a democracy really wants.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

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