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Thursday, January 27, 2005

EFF - Rethinking recounts

* Op-ed: "Rethinking Recounts"

By Cindy Cohn
EFF Legal Director

When Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) after
the Florida recount debacle, most of us imagined that new
electronic voting machines would make the voting process
easier. What we didn't anticipate was that some voting
machine vendors would make it "easier" by removing the
ability to do an accurate recount - the design equivalent of
a CEO making an audit "easier" by eliminating the
accounting department.

With the dust settling on the majority of the close elections
nationwide, we can see more clearly than ever the most
disturbing problem caused by using these rush-to-market
touchscreen voting machines: the recounts were, to put it
bluntly, a charade.

Let's start with the basics. The goal of a recount is to
ensure that the voters' intentions were properly recorded
and the right person won. That's why we pull out the punch
cards and review them for hanging chads, or check optically
scanned ballots for stray marks.

Nothing remotely that sensible took place in Washington State,
Ohio, or anywhere else that voters used paperless touchscreen
machines. Instead, we saw what can only be described
as a "reprint." Voting officials either fed the same vote
data through the same system a second time, or recounted the
machine data by hand or with a spreadsheet - always reaching
the same or roughly the same results. It doesn't take a
computer genius to recognize that this method of "recounting"
is simply a means of replicating any error in vote data
that may have existed the first time the votes were
tallied. It says absolutely nothing about whether the voters'
intentions were correctly recorded in the first place.

So how do we perform a legitimate recount using touchscreen
machines? The first and most obvious answer is to add paper.
With a voter-verified paper ballot, a basic "audit" is part
of the process. The voter can see on paper whether the
machine has correctly recorded his or her vote, and election
officials can check the machine count against the
voter-checked paper count.

That's the solution mandated by the "Holt bill" - popular,
bipartisan-supported federal legislation that Representative
Rush Holt (D-NJ) will reintroduce this congressional term.
It's already the law in California, New Hampshire, and
Alaska. And after the embarrassing, agonizingly protracted
battle over the recount in Ohio, Secretary of State Kenneth
Blackwell has prudently chosen to require the safest, most
auditable system available: precinct-counted optical-scan

But suppose your state or county can't see the writing on
the wall and chooses to stick with paperless machines.
There are still steps that voting officials can take to help
verify an election, including counting from the redundant
memory banks, examining the audit logs, and conducting
simple screen-calibration tests. E-voting machine vendors
themselves repeatedly cite the presence of redundant
memories as proof that touchscreen machines are auditable.
Yet in this election, many officials flatly refused to
look at them - leaving voters without even the most
bare-minimum safeguards against machine error and

It doesn't have to be this way. The Election Assistance
Commission (EAC) has just begun to formulate its work
plan for 2005. It could step forward to develop clear and
sensible guidelines for what constitutes a true recount
using touchscreen machines. Let's hope it moves swiftly -
before we lose any more elections to substandard machines,
needless confusion, and doubt.

For the original version of this piece online:


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