Voting groups release guidelines for e-voting checks

States urged to require post-election audits

WASHINGTON -- About 20 states using electronic voting systems do not audit the results after elections, but there's still time to change direction, a coalition of fair elections advocates and e-voting critics said today.

The groups, including Common Cause, Verified Voting and the Brennan Center for Justice, called on states to require post-election audits of electronic voting systems, including touch-screen voting machines and optical scan systems. The groups also released a set of recommendations (PDF format) for best practices in election audits.

The document calls on states to hand-count paper records generated in conjunction with many e-voting systems. Three auditable voting machines were patented before 1900, said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting. "So why are we here in 2008 promoting this concept?" she said.

Audits can help restore voter confidence in elections, Smith said. "If election outcomes aren't checked, it can mean a crisis in democracy," she said.

Voter trust in elections seems to have diminished after the 2000 presidential election, said Maggie Toulouse Oliver, county clerk for Bernalillo County, N.M. In 2000, a paper ballot design in Florida caused confusion over which presidential candidate people intended to vote for. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court had a hand in electing current President George Bush.

"Audits really help to restore the public trust in our voting systems," Oliver said. "When there is a lack of trust in how that vote came out or how that transition took place, it can cast aspersions on our system of government."

In addition, e-voting machines have lost votes in multiple elections since then. In August, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner filed a lawsuit against electronic voting machine vendor Premier Election Solutions, saying the company should pay damages for dropped votes in the state's March primary election.

Premier first denied that its machines were the cause of the problem, but the company later concluded that programming errors caused the dropped votes. Audits after the election found hundreds of uncounted votes.

In a race for Florida's 13th congressional district in 2006, about 18,000 people who cast votes in other races failed to record a vote for either candidate. Sarasota County voters cast about 16,000 more votes in the Florida governor's race and in the Senate race than were recorded in the House race. About 4,000 more people cast ballots for the county's Southern District Hospital Board than were recorded in the House race.

Voting officials need to identify potential areas of weakness, Oliver said. Auditing "provides us with the information and the opportunity that we need to improve our elections systems," she said. "As elections officials, we should be as proactive as we can toward fixing those problems and restoring that trust."

An official with one e-voting vendor said her company welcomes post-election audits.

"While I have not seen this specific report, from a general standpoint post-election audits are an important aspect of sound post-election procedures that help to increase transparency and voter confidence levels while further verifying result accuracy or identifying issues that need resolution," said Michelle Shafer, vice president of communications and external affairs at Sequoia Voting Systems. "Post-election audits should not, however, be confined to electronic voting. Elections run with optical scan or paper ballots should be subject to the same post-election auditing."

Among the groups' recommendations for audit best practices: The public should be allowed to observe audits; the audits should be done by independent officials, not elections officials; and audits should use strict ballot chain-of-custody practices.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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