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New "Paperless Ballots" Threaten Fair Elections
Trust, but verify. Ronald Reagan's famous mantra for arms
control applies just as well to the way we conduct elections.
by Senator Johnny Ellis and Representative Les Gara


April 17, 2004

After the 2000 federal election fiasco in Florida, Congress rushed to modernize the way Americans vote. With the impetus of the federal Help America Vote Act, many states quickly turned to direct recording equipment (DRE)- also known as touch-screen machines-and other devices to electronically record, count, and report our votes. They do this without leaving a paper record we can check. In our eagerness to embrace the latest hi-tech gadgets, however, we may have inadvertently sacrificed the voters' trust in elections.

Hardware problems, unreliable computer code and lack of security have raised serious questions among computer experts and elections observers about whether these machines can accurately record, tally, and report our votes. The experiences of many localities have demonstrated these failings. In Bernalillio County, NM a programming error caused a computer to delete 25 percent of the ballots cast by early voters. In Maryland, voters for the Republican candidate for governor watched as their votes appeared beside the Democratic candidate's name. In Fairfax County, VA a machine was found to have subtracted one vote for every 100 cast for a school board candidate. In one Texas match up, optical scan machines declared two low vote getters to be landslide winners.

In the Texas case, elections officials were able to correct the mistake by hand counting the optically scanned paper ballots. Alaska has successfully used the AccuVote system's optically scanned ballots since 1998. Fortunately, there appears not to have been any problems with elections in that time, but if there had been, we would have had the means to verify the vote count. However, the Division of Elections has purchased 100 DRE machines and anticipates buying more to meet requirements in federal law.

As opposed to our current AccuVote system, many DRE machines produce no paper trail to audit. Recognizing the crucial shortcomings of DRE technology, many observers are calling for voting machines to produce paper receipts that voters can verify before leaving the polling booth and that are subsequently held in lock boxes for audit purposes. The state of California recently moved to require such a voter verified paper trail in all elections. We've introduced Senate Bill 296 and House Bill 459 to establish the same protections in Alaska.

Properly equipped voting machines provide great benefits to groups such as blind and disabled voters who otherwise may not be able to easily cast a ballot in private. The answer to the pitfalls of DRE voting is to provide a back-up method of recording and verifying votes, on paper. That will protect us from the vagaries of computer chips and software.

Our bills will require that these new machines leave a paper trail. We will work with other legislators to make sure our bills, before passage, require that Alaska's current paper ballot machines, which have proven vary accurate, remain the primary machine used at polling stations. The new DRE machines will be reserved for those who need them because of visual or other handicaps.

Citizens trust in elections as a bedrock of democracy. Only an accurate count can assure voters that elections result in a true reflection of their will. Requiring a voter verified paper trail will assure Alaskans that no matter what technology is adopted in the future, their elections will be transparent, and their votes counted accurately. Please let your legislators and the Governor know that you support requiring voter verified paper trail in all elections.



Note: Senator Johnny Ellis is the Democratic Minority Leader and Representative Les Gara is a freshman Democratic legislator - both are members of the Alaska Legislature. They represent the Anchorage areas: Downtown, Fairview, Midtown, Rogers Park, W. Government Hill, and W. Airport Heights.



Note: Comments published on Viewpoints are the opinions of the writer
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sitnews.


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