Virginia’s Senate election became a national flashpoint when Republican Sen. George Allen hurled a racial epithet at one of his opponent’s aides. But the bitterly contested campaign could have taken a new significance if Allen had chosen to challenge the result of the election — holding control of the Senate open as election officials tried to explain how a recount could be verified without a paper trail of individual votes as they were cast.
“We dodged a bullet,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. “It would have been a circus, so we are able to avoid that. But we’re still not out of the woods yet.”
In the wake of election problems in Maryland and Florida, Virginia legislators are looking at the possibility of what elections officials call a “voter verified paper audit trial” when the General Assembly convenes in January. Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34) and Del. Timothy Hugo (R-40) are planning to introduce legislation to require state elections officials to create such a paper trail. Both legislators introduced similar legislation last year, SB 424 and HB 1243 respectively. But the Republican-led effort failed. Yet with Florida’s thirteenth congressional election plagued by computer-related problems, calls to add an audit trail to Virginia ballots have taken new bipartisan life. Just last week, the all-Democratic Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to support such an effort.
“It’s interesting because you don’t usually think about this as a Republican issue,” said McDonald. “But if you look at where the electronic machines are in Fairfax County, it’s a Democratic stronghold. So the Republicans want a little security on this.”
<b>UNTIL 2004</b>, Alexandrians used “optical-scan” voting technology. Voters used special pens to fill in bubbles on a ballot sheet similar to standardized tests used in schools. Although the system left a paper trail that could be used and recounted without electricity, local elections officials heard many complaints about the system: the print was too small, the bubbles were hard to fill accurately and the booth wasn’t well lit. Some people said that the technology was outdated.
More importantly, many disabled voters didn’t like the optical-scan ballots because blind voters needed to have assistance to vote. Electronic machines, however, were much more palatable to disabled voters because they could exercise an independent franchise, voting in secret without anyone’s assistance. And when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, election officials were required to provide a voting method that allows disabled individuals to vote independently. After years of investigating the issue, former City Manager Philip Sunderland advocated that the city dump the optical-scan machines.
“Currently, citizens in Alexandria vote on an optical scan system that is not accessible to all voters,” Sunderland wrote in an Oct. 28, 2003 memorandum to City Council members. “It is not possible for individuals with disabilities (including the blind and visually impaired) to vote on this system in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access, participation and privacy that is provided for other voters.”
<b>SUNDERLAND RECOMMENDED</b> that the city purchase eSlate voting machines, which were the unanimous preference of the city’s Commission on Persons with Disabilities. The change was hailed by many in the disabled community because blind citizens could vote unassisted using headphones and an audio ballot. Voters with fine motor skill problems can use tactile-input devices commonly called “jelly switches.” Even voters who are completely paralyzed can use “sip and puff” devices commonly found on wheelchairs to cast a secret ballot on eSlate.
Election officials praised the machines as being secure and efficient, lacking the problems associated with touch-screen technology and removable smart cards that have plagued other jurisdictions. They said that the backlit screens were easier to read with larger fonts and user-friendly operations. More importantly, the eSlate machines make accidentally voting for more than one candidate in a race — a phenomenon known as “overvoting” — impossible. They also have the ability to warn voters if they fail to vote in a particular race, a phenomenon known as “undervoting.”
“In the 2000 Presidential Election about 1 in 50 voters failed to successfully cast a vote for president on the old optical scan system,” said Tom Parkins, Alexandria’s registrar. “In the 2004 Presidential Election the number was close to 1 in 200 on eSlate.”
<b>BUT THE ESLATE MACHINES</b> had problems of their own. Aside from a truncated summary page that failed to include Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb’s last name in the most recent election, the ability of the machines to conduct a legitimate recount was perceived as dubious by many experts. Then when the Senate race between Allen and Webb was close, many were wondering how Alexandria could conduct a meaningful recount without a paper trail of the recorded votes.
“At the end of the day, we want to be sure that all the votes are counted,” said Andrew Rivera, a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission. “Since the 2000 election, there’s been a growing distrust and apprehension as to how voters feel about electronic polling machines.”
Rivera said that many voters don’t trust the machines, especially since no paper record exists of each vote. During a public hearing on the city’s legislative agenda for the upcoming General Assembly session, Rivera recommended that the City Council should support the efforts to create a hard-copy record of each vote. He also suggested that local elections officials create a pilot program that would put Alexandria at the forefront of the movement.
“Alexandria is often in the forefront of progressive and new ideas,” said Rivera, who managed his wife’s successful bid for the School Board earlier this year. “It was the first to embrace new voting technology, and now it has the opportunity to embrace audit trails to ensure confidence in the new technology.”
<b>BUT PAPER TRAILS</b> are controversial, and advocates for the blind claim that use of the printouts is discriminatory. Chester Avery, chairman of the Alexandria Commission on Persons with Disabilities, said members of City Council should consider all the consequences of taking action on the issue. During a Nov. 18 public hearing at City Hall, Avery expressed confidence in the existing system.
“We have had nine voting opportunities with these machines,” said Avery. “And there have been no problems.”
Avery said adding an audit trail to the existing eSlate machines would create a new set of problems for elections officials, who would have to find ways to cope with broken printers. Furthermore, if city leaders decide to adopt an audit trail to its existing voting technology, Avery said they needed to do it in a way that would allow blind and disabled voters to independently verify their vote without assistance.
“If you want to go in that direction and support that issue, then that paper trail has to be accessible to people with disabilities,” said Avery, who is blind. “We don’t want our votes to be funneled to us by a third party.”
<b>RECENT STUDIES</b> have indicated a growing concern about the need of a paper trail for voters. Noted voting technology expert Roy Saltman wrote a widely read report in August that suggested adding a paper trail to direct-recording electronic voting systems is essential to reducing perceptions of fraud and supporting confidence in the results of elections.
“Computer scientists assert that software cannot be proven to be correct and some of them are continually finding computer security vulnerabilities that they make sure are widely publicized. At the same time, conspiracy theorists and losing candidates often use machines without audit trails as a convenient excuse for election losses,” Saltman wrote. “Public confidence in the correctness of reported election outcomes has suffered.”
A subsequent report from the National Institute for Standards and Technology, which advises the United States Elections Assistance Commission, said that paperless electronic voting machines “cannot be made secure.” It advised election officials that voting systems should allow election officials to recount ballots independently from a voting machine’s software. The report also endorsed the kind of optical-scan voting technology that Alexandria abandoned in 2003.
“A lot of the policy has been driven by accommodating disability voters,” said McDonald, the George Mason professor who has worked as a consultant to the federal election commission. “But there’s a new option now that would help people with disabilities fill out the optical-scan ballot.”
<b>THE CITY’S REGISTRAR</b> said that retrofitting the city’s existing eSlate machines to provide a paper trail would cost about $250,000. The cost may be a little more than that, Parkins warned, because the city would probably need more machines to account for the new system.
“We would anticipate a marginal increase of breakdowns in the equipment because we’re adding moving parts to it,” Parkins said. “We also anticipate that the voters would take longer to cast their votes with a paper trail.”
With the Democratic City Council endorsing a Republican bill on paper trail in the upcoming General Assembly session, the time could be right for a bipartisan solution to growing concerns over the integrity of elections in Virginia.
“We need to do anything we can to create public confidence in the system,” said Dick Hobson, a former member of the House of Delegates who is now a Democratic precinct captain in Alexandria. “If this is what it’s going to take to create that confidence, then we need to do it.”