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E-voting faces new scrutiny

General Accounting Office inquiry adds to postelection angst, but the results will likely affect only future contests.

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By Robert Lemos ,&nbsp Richard Shim and Evan Hansen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com

A newly announced federal investigation of the November election will bring fresh scrutiny on the performance of e-voting machines, but election experts said they believe any impact will be limited to future political contests.

On Tuesday, five Democratic representatives said the Government Accountability Office agreed to their request to review complaints that election machine technology and procedural issues had prevented some votes from being counted in the recently completed presidential election.

Though most observers have concluded that election technology performed reasonably well Nov. 2, a variety of anomalies have cropped up, fueling calls for a deeper review of complaints from voters and election watchdog groups over possible mistakes.

"On its own authority, the GAO will examine the security and accuracy of voting technologies, the distribution and allocation of voting machines, and the counting of provisional ballots," the five members of the House of Representatives said in statement Tuesday. "We are hopeful that GAO's nonpartisan and expert analysis will get to the bottom of the flaws uncovered in the 2004 election."

The pending GAO inquiry offers the latest sign that the postelection healing called for by politicians has yet to emerge for critics of e-voting machines.

Experts said they do not expect an investigation to result in a dramatic challenge of the November election results. But it could lead to important changes in ongoing reforms of the election process sparked by the famous "hanging chad" ballot problems in Florida during 2000's closely fought presidential race.

Congress in 2002 passed the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, to help states fund an overhaul of antiquated voting systems with new e-voting machines. But those attempts have themselves sparked heated criticism over often poorly planned changes that some believe offer citizens less secure and reliable voting procedures than they had before.

Calls for reforms
Criticism has focused on the lack of national voting machine standards and the failure of some voting districts to require that e-voting machines produce a paper ballot receipt that could be used in the case of an audit.

"The $64,000 question is whether or not the GAO finds enough problems in the 2004 election results to spur Congress to help the Help America Vote Act," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan voting-information site. "Election reform is driven by either consensus or crisis, and in the absence of either, reform will move slowly, if at all, in the next Congress...There is some concern that if there are only a number of smaller problems, they might just slip under Congress' radar."

One problem voters faced in the November elections was that after choosing one presidential candidate, they were presented with confirmations that they had voted for the opposing candidate, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and VerifiedVoting.org said in a release earlier this month. The Verified Voting Foundation is an e-voting critic that has called for independent technical experts to monitor and test voting machines and results, among other things. The groups added that another common error was that machines crashed and rebooted without evidence of whether the votes were counted.

The groups sent letters to voting officials in eight counties with the worst problems urging them to allow for independent machine tests. The counties included Broward and Palm Beach in Florida, Mahoning and Franklin in Ohio, Mercer and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Harris in Texas, and Bernalillo in New Mexico.

Calls for increased scrutiny of e-voting systems are heating up as the technology is rapidly taking root in election districts across the country. Some 50 million voters used electronic ballot machines in November, up from 32 million in 2002 and 20 million in 2000. In October, the U.S. Senate voted to increase from $500 million to $1.5 billion the budget for grants to states for election reform improvements mandated under HAVA.

Despite some critics' predictions of widespread and major problems, electronic voting machines made a respectable showing in the U.S. elections. Though issues cropped up in almost every state that used e-voting machines, all were relatively minor, and most could be attributed to poorly trained poll workers, problems caused by voters or other circumstances, according to poll observers.

Known glitches include a transmission error in the battleground state of Ohio that gave President Bush almost 4,000 phantom votes in the preliminary results posted online, the secretary of state's office in Ohio acknowledged. Meanwhile, data from Florida has raised eyebrows and led to at least one analysis that claimed the result of voting there is statistically implausible.

Analysis of voter behavior
Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley published on Friday a statistical analysis of irregularities in Florida voter behavior that contends voting patterns favored Bush to the tune of 130,000 to 260,000 votes.

The report analyzed the statistical relationships between Florida's Nov. 2 results and a variety of factors, including historical trends in Florida, racial factors and county size. According to the analysis, people using e-voting machines tended to favor Bush in proportion to the number of registered Democrats in each county.

The group stressed that results were not proof of any errors in counting the vote but merely suggested that some link existed between the type of machine used to tally votes and the margin by which Bush won.

"Without a paper trail, statistical comparisons of jurisdictions that used e-voting are the only tool available to diagnose problems with the new technology," the researchers said in the report.

Paperless e-voting machines accounted for 29 percent of the Nov. 2 vote tally, according to VerifiedVoting.org.

"There were widespread malfunctions and errors, and we're pleased that the GAO will apparently be investigating these incidents, and hopefully it will lead to improvement in regulation and technology," said Will Doherty executive director of the Verified Voting Foundation.

A representative for e-voting machine maker Hart InterCivic, which provided some 25,000 machines used in the November election, said the company welcomes the findings of the GAO.

"A lot of different studies have said a lot of different things, so if someone from the government wants to look at the results and get to the facts, then I think that's good," said Michelle Shafer, director of communications at Hart InterCivic. Shafer added that testing already occurs in many of the counties that use e-voting machines.

Representatives lobby for probe
Shortly after the election, five Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives began lobbying the GAO to conduct an independent investigation. In two letters, sent Nov. 5 and Nov. 8, Reps. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Robert Wexler, D-Fla., asked the GAO to investigate various complaints about election machine technology and procedural issues preventing some votes from being counted. Two other members of the House of Representatives, Robert Scott, D-Va., and Rush Holt, D-N.J., signed the Nov. 8 letter.

The lawmakers provided the GAO with some 57,000 incident reports that had been received by the House Judiciary Committee.

The representatives asked the GAO to move quickly while there was still evidence from the election to analyze.

"There is substantial concern that much of the primary evidence needed to evaluate these allegations will not be preserved without immediate action," they argued in the Nov. 8 letter.

Eight other members of the House of Representatives gave their support to the GAO request as well, the representatives said in their statement.

"The GAO is a fair and honest nonpartisan body, and we are hopeful that it will look at all the issues and problems that came up and will seriously consider recommending changes," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had previously called on the GAO recommendations to conduct independent testing of results from e-voting machines.

But she added that the GAO's recommendations would likely apply only to future elections. "Our expectation is that the GAO's study won't be completed in time to affect current results," she said.

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