February 9, 2005 | By Matt Zimmerman

Cause and Effect: California's Paper-Trail Fallout

California's protracted, predictable, and ultimately preventable e-voting train wreck continues. On Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported that eight California counties that purchased paperless electronic voting machines before the state passed its paper-trail requirement are now balking at the cost of the required upgrades. According to the Times, costs will exceed $22 million, with Orange County on the hook for approximately $9 million. Shasta County's chief elections official laments that this burdensome requirement will reduce funds available for firefighting, law enforcement, and local libraries. Alameda County's registrar complains that the requirements are unnecessary and that "the people who wanted it have raised such a fuss that they've created this atmosphere of distrust in the public."

It's a bit hard to sympathize.

Since the 2000 election, technology vendors have been pressing hard to convince election officials to lock themselves into a flawed, controversial, largely untested electronic voting solution. Many election officials, entrusted with the responsibility to protect their respective electoral systems, nevertheless decided to gamble state and federal funds in an unproven technology and to turn local voters into technology beta testers.

These decisions were forced upon no one. The sudden emergence of state and federal funds did not require election officials to abandon common-sense practices of ensuring that physical voter-verified ballots actually exist in order to properly conduct a recount. Simply look at Nevada, the only state that implemented a comprehensive paper-trail requirement in time for the 2004 election, or the majority of jurisdictions across the country that decided to hold off altogether until e-voting technology matured. The existence of early-implementation discounts offered by e-voting vendors did not mandate that counties abandon common sense during contract negotiations. Simply recognize the work of election officials in five California counties who, unlike their counterparts, made sure that it is machine vendors and not taxpayers who have to foot the bill now that paper trails have been mandated. With a bit more patience, and a bit of forward-thinking, election officials in California and elsewhere could have used their unique positions and leverage to ensure that democratic principles were enshrined in their new voting machines. Instead, many officials were hypnotized by that new car smell and are now lashing out at critics who were pointing out serious flaws all along.

Faced with fiscal crises of their own making, many officials continue to rest on the flimsiest and most disingenuous of excuses: that there is no evidence that machines have been tampered with in a California election. Never mind that these machines have greatly undermined the ability to detect manipulation or error. Never mind that local election officials fight tooth and nail to prevent a meaningful investigation of the limited data that these machines actually do produce.

It's getting old.

Election officials around the country should examine the California experience with care before embarking on wholesale technology overhauls of their own. While new technology can and ultimately will improve election systems, essential democratic safeguards must be preserved. Like transparency. And auditability. And verifiability. These are not quaint relics conjured by luddites to stall the emergence of perfect systems. They are necessary components that improve not only accuracy and reliability, but also voter confidence and respect for the electoral process. California election officials (and ultimately taxpayers) are paying a steep price for their lack of vision. Whether officials around the country make the same mistake remains to be seen.

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