Washington State: Balloting plan draws criticism



What's next

A committee will review the plan by July 21, and it will be sent to the Federal Elections Commission on July 28.

Plan highlights

- Placement of at least one touch-screen or direct recording electronic machine in every polling station. Four manufacturers' DRE systems have been certified for purchase in Washington and a fifth is under review.

- Creation of a statewide voter registration database that county elections officials will tap into.

- Elimination of punch-card voting systems in Thurston, Mason and a dozen other counties that must convert to optical-scan ballots by Jan. 1, 2006.

- Retention of absentee or vote-by-mail balloting as an option for voters.

To learn more

Washington's draft election-reform plan can be viewed on the Secretary of State's Web site, www.secstate.wa.gov/elections.

Olympia, WA - Critics took a final shot Thursday at Secretary of State Sam Reed's proposal to revamp state election procedures, which includes use of federally mandated touch-screen systems for people with disabilities.
"I don't think the federal government should be taking this action, especially in regard to Thurston County, because I think our voting has been exactly fair," Olympia resident Margery Sayre said in the last of four hearings Reed's office held around the state this week.

"I think we need some safeguards," added Linda Franz of Ferndale, representing a Whatcom County group that advocates the use of a paper audit trail as a way to let voters verify that their votes went through accurately. "It's all too easy to subvert these systems."

The electronic systems, known as direct recording equipment, will bring elections into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act by letting blind voters listen to their options via headphones and use a computerized ballot -- eliminating the need to rely on a third party, which has always made it impossible for blind voters to exercise a secret ballot.

Unless local elections officials chose to eliminate paper ballots at polling stations, only one direct recording system would be set up at each polling site. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, which is spurring the changes, includes upward of $60 million for Washington to put its electoral changes into place statewide.

Other changes in the works, including a statewide voter-registration list and conversion of punch-card voting systems to optical-scan systems, are in response to Florida's problems in the 2000 presidential election.

Thurston and Mason counties are among 15 Washington jurisdictions that will have to phase out punch-card systems by Jan. 1, 2006, under federal mandates.

But absentee-voter systems, which Thurston County voters have used with increasing popularity, would be left intact.

The debate over elections security is healthy and welcome, state Elections Director Dean Logan said. But, he said, it more properly belongs in the Legislature than with Reed's elections plan, which is designed to implement the federal voting act changes.

Reed's election-reform plan now will go for review to a 14-member steering committee, which includes county elections officials, before it is sent late this month to the Federal Elections Commission.

The Congress-mandated changes to voting aren't popular and have stirred concerns nationally.

Even among computer experts, there are fears that manipulation of the vote results could occur without adequate audit trails.

A California task force recently split over whether the voter-verification systems should use paper or some other means to ensure that a voter's intent is carried out.

"I think voter confidence is the issue," testified Bob Jacobs, the former Olympia mayor and a member of the League of Women Voters. Jacobs urged a system that provides accountability.

"There is no real protection for the voters," said Thurston County resident Anne Flynn, who warned that some election-equipment vendors have criminal backgrounds.

On the other side was Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger, a Democrat who implemented an all-electronic voting system in his county beginning with the September 2002 primary.

The Snohomish County system, which utilizes 1,000 touch-screen machines, lets voters double-check their vote selections before they touch a "cast ballot" button.

It has caused no problems or complaints, according to Terwilliger, who said most of the California task-force's recommendations are in place or can be put in place with the $5 million system he uses.

"The voters in our county -- maybe they are stranger than voters in other counties, I don't know -- like the system," Terwilliger said.

Thursday's hearing also drew testimony from Jim Adler, president of VoteHere, a Bellevue-based elections-software firm, who said that the vote verification issue is a real one and technology exists to provide electronic verification of votes.

Adler said his firm has developed such a system, though none is in place for an elections system in the country.

Adler said a paper audit trail is no guarantee of security, calling it "a Band-Aid on a broken leg." He noted that the California task force split its vote 6-3 in favor of electronic verification on the direct recording system.

Adler also spoke of a system that produces a kind of bar-code receipt that a voter could use later to verify that his or her ballot was counted.

The state Democratic Party has gone on record as favoring a paper audit trail.


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