States junking electronic voting machines

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The demise of touch-screen voting has produced a graveyard of expensive corpses: Warehouses stacked with thousands of carefully wrapped voting machines that have been shelved because of doubts about vanishing votes and vulnerability to hackers.

What to do with this high-tech junkyard is a multimillion-dollar question. One manufacturer offered to take back its ATM-like machines for $1 for each. Some states are offering the devices for sale on eBay and craigslist. Others hope to sell their inventories to other countries or salvage them for scrap.

A few more are holding out hope that the machines, some of which were purchased for as much as $5,000, could one day be resurrected.

"We store them very, very carefully in the hopes that someone, someday may decide that we can use them again," said San Diego County Registrar Deborah Seiler, whose jurisdiction spent $25 million on the devices.

New technology

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After the disputed 2000 presidential recount, Congress provided more than $3 billion to replace punch card and lever-operated machines. State officials across the country said the new systems would eliminate human error and political tampering.

But problems with the machines soon followed: vanishing votes, breakdowns, malfunctions and increasing evidence that the devices were vulnerable to hackers.

Beginning last year, states including California, Ohio and Florida abruptly ordered election officials to mothball their electronic machines. Over the last two years, the percentage of registered voters relying on touch-screen technology dropped from 44 percent to 36 percent.

In November, when the presidential race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain ends, an estimated 57 percent of voters will rely on paper ballots.

But reverting to paper has caused its own problems. During this year's primary season, record numbers of voters showed up. That caused ballots to run out, which delayed the often-cumbersome task of feeding paper ballots into scanning machines.

Money concerns

Changing to paper also meant that local election districts had to spend extra money on printing costs.

November's general election could bring more of the same difficulties.

As of December, 30 states had spent more than $253 million on new voting systems, according to a report by the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency that oversees spending of the $3 billion federal allotment.

But the agency does not know how many election districts have since abandoned those newly purchased systems.

"You'd have to talk to every one of the 10,072 election jurisdictions across the country," said Kimball Brace of Election Data Services, which tracks voting systems. "After 2000, everyone thought you could throw a bunch of money at the problem and make it go away right away. Elections ain't that kind of thing."

Errors questioned

San Diego's Seiler said she was forced to shrink-wrap 10,200 machines after Secretary of State Debra Bowen banned the devices, saying they were susceptible to fraud.

Seiler disagreed. Like many local election officials, she likes the system just fine. She also is a former employee of the system's manufacturer.

"There has been no evidence of any tampering on these machines," she said. "It was all based on a probability."

Leading makers of voting machines have made similar statements and blame poorly trained poll workers and human error for most glitches.

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