January 21, 2005 | By Cindy Cohn

Rethinking Recounts

Now that the dust has settled on the majority of the close elections nationwide, we can see more clearly than ever the most disturbing problem caused by using paperless touchscreen voting machines: the recounts were, to put it bluntly, a charade.

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.

But nothing remotely that sensible occured in Washington State, Ohio, or anywhere else that voters used paperless touchscreen machines. Instead, we saw what could accurately 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.

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 popular, bipartisan-supported "Holt bill," 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 in the wake of 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 machines.

Unfortunately, there remain a number of states and counties that cannot see the writing on the wall. After all, pressing a button to reprint a "recount" would seem to be the clean and easy solution; if the numbers never change, voting officials can simply claim that the first count was correct and call it a day.

Here's the rub: Too many people understand that a reprint is not a recount, and the number will only grow. Even in the absence of a voter-verified paper audit trail, there are steps officials can take to help verify an election, including counting from the redundant memory banks, examining the audit logs, and conducting calibration tests. These are bare-minimum safeguards against machine error and vote-tampering, and should be part of the recount process even for machines with paper trails.

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 e-voting 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. In this election, voting officials who purchased these rush-to-market machines were forced into the thankless position of making ad hoc decisions about how to properly reconstruct the election -- and sadly, most of them made the wrong choices. A prime example is the situation in Alameda County, California, where local officials ultimately refused to do anything but press the reprint button -- and now face a costly court challenge of that decision.

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 in to develop clear and sensible guidelines for what consitutes a true recount using paperless touchscreen machines. Let's hope it moves swiftly -- before we lose any more elections to substandard machines, needless confusion, and doubt.

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