SC Voting Machines Prompt Calls for Federal Action

Monisha Bansal | Staff Writer | Tuesday, January 22, 2008

SC Voting Machines Prompt Calls for Federal Action

( - Electronic voting machine problems in Horry County, S.C., during the Republican primaries on Saturday have prompted renewed calls for a paper trail so that votes can be verified.

"Voters are understandably outraged that in this important primary election they could not exercise their right to vote because of the machine malfunctions," Bob Edgar, president of the liberal group Common Cause, said in a statement.

"This was a preventable and foreseeable crisis. Congress and state election officials must move fast to fix this problem by the general election in November," he said. But the South Carolina Election Commission blamed the problem on "human error in preparing the machines for the primary."

"Before every election, all voting machines are tested to make sure they are operating correctly," the commission said in a statement. "One way this is done is by casting test votes on the machine to be sure it is recording them accurately."

The group said that the machines must be reset. Otherwise, "the voting system will not allow machines to be opened for voting on Election Day."

"Horry County voting machine technicians worked throughout the morning and early afternoon to visit these affected precincts and perform this procedure," the group said. "South Carolina's voting system has performed today as it was designed to perform."

"Paper never fails to boot up" countered Duncan Buell of Common Cause South Carolina. "We need to replace the system we have here in South Carolina, and we definitely need to have emergency paper ballots on hand in case of machine failures next week" during the Democratic primaries.

Election Systems and Software, the company that makes the iVotronic voting machines used in Horry County, defended their product.

"The iVotronic's three independent but redundant memory paths ensure that no votes will ever be lost or altered," the company said. "Also, if an election is ever contested, iVotronic's unique, patented recount system allows replication of the entire election process, including production of all ballot images for re-verification."

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), however, has introduced legislation that would provide federal funds for precincts to switch to systems with a paper trail or for paper ballots. Last year, Holt introduced legislation that would require a voter-verified paper ballot for every vote cast and routine random audits. The bill is still awaiting action on the House floor.

Holt introduced the Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Act of 2008, a plan to allow state and local jurisdictions to opt-in to receive reimbursements from the federal government if they convert to a paper ballot voting system, offer emergency paper ballots, and conduct audits by hand.

Holt said that while Congress has not done enough to "require paper ballots and audits for all votes in all states" in time for the primaries, "there is still time to take action to protect the accuracy, integrity, and security of the 2008 general elections."

"This plan provides an incentive for state or localities that want to do the right thing," he said.

The bill would authorize $500 million to reimburse paperless jurisdictions that convert to paper-based voting systems in 2008, as well as those that don't fully convert to a paper-based system but provide emergency paper ballots that would be counted as regular ballots in the event of machine failure.

The reimbursements would also cover the cost of equipment and cost of developing procedures for using a paper-based system, with or without electronic counting.

Additionally, the bill would authorize $100 million for jurisdictions that conduct audits that meet basic minimum requirements, including the use of a random selection, an independent auditor, at least a three percent audit sample, and public observation.

"The right to vote is the most fundamental right of our democracy as it is the right through which we secure all others," Holt said.

"Voters should never have to leave their polling places wondering if their legitimate vote will be counted. This bill would give local and state officials the resources to protect citizens' right to vote. Time is of the essence. I hope for House consideration and passage as soon as possible," he added.

But Michael Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University and electronic voting systems examiner, said electronic voting machines "have been described, somewhat dramatically, as a threat to democracy."

"A far greater threat to democracy is a return to any form of paper ballot," he said in a policy paper, noting that paper ballots have greater possibilities of being compromised, and a verifiable paper trail would necessarily compromise the secrecy of votes cast, because they would need to match up with a voter.

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