State and federal lawmakers are expressing doubts that new ATM-like electronic voting machines - once seen as a cure to problem-plagued punch-card ballots - can be trusted to accurately count the votes of 50 million Americans poised to use the touch-screen devices in November.
With just six months to Election Day, lawmakers are heeding the warnings of computer scientists that touch-screen computerized voting systems are just as vulnerable as home computers to glitches, hackers and viruses, all of which could call into question the outcome of what looks to be a hotly contested presidential race.
Despite reassurances from the machines' makers, a series of recent mishaps in primaries across the nation has shaken confidence in the technology that recently was installed in thousands of voting precincts.
After thousands of touch-screen voting machines malfunctioned during California's March primary, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned the problematic machines April 30 and ordered all counties that use similar electronic systems to provide paper ballots as a backup.
Shelley's action is a major setback in the national movement to update paper voting systems to electronic and likely will influence policy-makers in Congress and at least 20 states who are debating whether to require electronic machines to print a paper ballot to verify every vote.
The rhetoric surrounding the controversy is becoming as acrimonious and partisan as the fallout over the contested presidential results in Florida in 2000.
"My nightmare scenario for the 2004 presidential election is to have a reasonably close race decided by paperless electronic voting machines that we have no way to independently check did the right thing," said Stanford University professor David Dill, who publishes a Web site called Verifiedvoting.org.
While many states now are balking at switching to paperless electronic voting, about 25 percent of America's ballots will be cast on 100,000 paperless, electronic voting machines in 31 states plus D.C. on Nov. 2. Not all electronic voting machines are paperless, such as optical scanners. Of concern are touch-screen devices that store votes electronically and do not print a paper ballot.
After Florida's debacle with "hanging chads," electronic voting was considered to be the remedy for the ills of punch-card ballots and other older paper-based voting systems. The problem prompted Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, providing $3.9 billion to purchase new computerized voting systems. But many feel computer voting without a paper backup also called a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) - could be equally dangerous in another tight presidential election.
Recent voting mishaps reported in several states have demonstrated the limits of voting technology:
Now, a chorus of warnings from computer scientists and voters' groups has caught the attention of election officials and lawmakers who are slamming the brakes on planned upgrades to their voting systems.
"Until recently, (voter-verified paper trails) was a side issue, but it's grown so big that many states that were planning to buy new machines have at least postponed those plans or slowed the process way down," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan election reform group that recently published a report that offers a 50-state snapshot of how state election officials are dealing with voting security. Electionline.org is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.
The report, titled "Securing the Vote," found that election officials have shifted their focus from delays in receiving federal HAVA funding to uncertainty over the security and safety of new electronic voting equipment.
Legislation requiring voter-verified paper ballots has been introduced in 15 states (Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin) that currently use electronic voting machines, and four states (Arizona, Maine, Minnesota and Vermont) that have yet to upgrade their voting equipment. Sixteen states with electronic voting machines have not discussed paper ballots: Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.
Election officials in Illinois, Oregon, Nevada and New Hampshire already have banned paperless, electronic voting systems.
Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller recently made Nevada the only state to mandate that printers be installed on all electronic voting machines by November, despite the fact that Nevada had experienced no problems with the machines used by 70 percent of the state's voters in 2002.
"Our citizens read the news reports in other states of breakdowns, votes cast and then changed and no way for the voter to check their vote," Heller said. "So I decided that by mandating printers for our machines for this election, our voters will know that Nevada will have the most secure elections in the nation."
Utah election officials announced April 29 that they have suspended plans to spend $20 million on new electronic voting machines based on the recommendation of a committee studying the machine's performance in other states. So Utah will use existing paper balloting this year.
Ohio is poised to become the first state to pass legislation mandating voter-verified paper ballots, though not in time for this year's election. The Senate last week approved a bill that would mandate printers by 2006, and the House is expected to take up the legislation this week.
California's controversy was touched off when it was learned that Texas-based Diebold had installed uncertified software in touch-screen systems in 16 counties. Later, thousands of Diebold machines malfunctioned during the March primary. The issue has so riled critics in California that the faulty Diebold machines were even lampooned by political cartoonist Mark Fiore in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Security reviews of electronic voting machines have found vulnerabilities in systems sold by Diebold, Election Systems & Software Inc., Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. and Hart InterCivic Inc.
Concerns about the security of electronic ballots also have spawned wild conspiracy theories.
When Georgia first went to an all touch-screen system in 2002, voters turned out two incumbent Democrats, Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes, despite exit polls indicating the candidates were ahead. The upsets prompted partisan speculation of a rigged election. It didn't help when Wally O'Dell, chief executive officer of Diebold, which manufactured Georgia's machines, said in a Republican fund-raising letter last August that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." Critics also point out that Diebold's board of directors and corporate officers have personally contributed money to President George W. Bush's re-election campaign, according to Political Money Line, a campaign finance tracking Web site.
Voting-machine vendors and some voting officials oppose paper-verified ballots, however. Election chiefs in Florida, Georgia and New Mexico are outspoken supporters of paperless voting machines They say that printers are expensive and can jam or run out of ink, causing voting machines to go down during elections. Sticking with imperfect punch-card systems already proven to leave thousands of votes unrecorded would disenfranchise a large portion of the electorate, said Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University.
According to Tokaji, paperless, touch-screen voting machines have proven to be more reliable than paper ballots and are the only voting method that can provide disabled voters - primarily the visually impaired and non-English speakers - the ability to cast a secret vote.
"I don't claim that e-voting isn't vulnerable to fraud or error, but so far the concerns raised by paper trail advocates are completely speculative and the problems we've seen would not be solved by a paper trail but through better procedures," Tokaji said.
New Mexico's computerized voting systems have operated completely paperless for nearly 18 years without any major problems, Election Director Denise Lamb said.
Lamb said it is a disgrace that in some places in America, the disabled, visually impaired and non-English speakers still cannot cast a secret ballot. New touch-screen voting machines that use audio to prompt voters has allowed Native Americans from eight New Mexican tribes that have no written language to cast a secret vote for the first time, Lamb said.
"I think that a lot of the fears over e-voting have been overblown, and a tremendous amount of misinformation has bred a climate of suspicion," Lamb said. "If more people understood the nuts and bolts of election administration, I think they'd have more trust in the system."