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Voter paper trail not an easy path
Ballot back-up clunky, lengthy, experts warn.

Dec. 22, 2006 - Atlanta Journal-Constitution, By CARLOS CAMPOS

Adding a paper trail to Georgia's electronic voting machines is not a cure-all for assuring voter confidence, a panel of elections experts cautioned Thursday.

An Election Day experiment Nov. 7 in three precincts in Georgia one each in Bibb, Camden and Cobb counties exposed major logistical concerns with using so-called voter-verified paper audit trails.

New machines were used in those precincts that allowed voters to compare the choices they made on the electronic touch screen with a piece of paper produced by an attached printer. The idea is for voters to make sure their ballot choices match, similar to reviewing a receipt after purchasing groceries.

The paper trails have gained popularity throughout the United States amid growing concerns over voting machine security. Computer scientists at some of the nation's leading universities have warned that voting machines are susceptible to vote-tampering, though elections officials insist safeguards are in place to prevent or detect such shenanigans.

Officials in Georgia are considering whether to require the audit trails on the state's 25,000-plus machines.

Elections officials were required to count the paper ballots produced by the machines on Nov. 7 by hand and compare them with the machine totals.

Sharon Dunn, head of elections in Cobb County, testified Thursday at a public hearing in Powder Springs about the efforts her office undertook to manually count 976 ballots.

Dunn said 28 people needed five days to count the ballots, which covered 42 races. Six teams spent all day counting ballots, often having to start over when numbers didn't reconcile properly. The printouts, laid end-to-end, were the length of five football fields, Dunn said.

"It looks easy until you have to do it," Dunn said of hand counts.

Other local elections officials also raised concerns about paper trails, including how they would be handled and stored, whether they would be counted as the official ballot, whether volunteer, often elderly, poll workers can handle the new technology and the possibility of mechanical malfunctions with printers.

During perhaps the only light moment of the five-hour hearing, Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, showed a clip from a film shot during election preparations in San Diego.

The clip showed two elderly poll workers struggling mightily to attach and load a printer with paper to a voting machine. At one point one of the hapless men pulls out a flashlight to help him see, only to find it has dead batteries.

Charles Stewart, a professor of political science specializing in elections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also questioned the usefulness of paper trails.

"Audits ask humans to do something that computers are generally better at doing," Stewart said.

Testimony from the hearings (similar ones were held in Bibb and Camden) will become part of a report that will be forwarded to the state Legislature, which convenes in January. The Legislature will ultimately need to decide if the law will be changed to require paper trails on voting machines.

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