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Will the tide finally turn against electronic-only ballots?

Like many counties around the country, Santa Clara is getting ready to adopt electonic voting machines. Also like many of those counties, Santa Clara is getting warnings from computer security experts who say that machines which do not produce paper ballots are inherently unsecure and potentially subject to undetectable fraud. Unlike those other counties, the experts in Santa Clara may actually be taken seriously.

National experts on computer security have raised alarming questions elsewhere about the validity of elections run on touch-screen machines, which currently don’t produce a paper record a voter can use to check that the machine has recorded decisions accurately. But scientists didn’t get far until they spoke up late last month in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors delayed buying 5,000 ATM-like machines for 730,000 registered voters after hearing their concerns.

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley followed up on the decision by convening a statewide task force on the security of touch-screen voting. And now, three voting machine vendors vying for Santa Clara County’s $20 million contract are saying they will install a paper audit system at no extra cost if the county becomes the first jurisdiction nationally to require it.

What the supervisors decide Tuesday, when they’re scheduled to adopt a new voting system, will ripple through other California counties and is likely to affect the overall move toward electronic voting, the most popular antidote to the hanging chad debacle of the 2000 presidential election.

“You’re at the beginning of what’s becoming the modern argument in voting systems,” said Kimball Brace, president of Washington, D.C.-based Election Data Services political consulting firm and an expert witness in former Vice President Al Gore’s court case to get a Florida recount in 2000. “What we have out in your jurisdiction is the first cut of people saying, ‘Wait a minute, shouldn’t you have a physical ballot in case there is a recount?’ It hasn’t come up elsewhere because a lot of people haven’t thought about it, or comprehended the need for it.”

The article goes on to quote my buddy Dan Wallach, who unsuccessfully raised these issues when the Houston city council was debating the eSlate machines that have since been implemented.

Other blogs such as Seeing the Forest and Ruminate This (see here and here) have been following this story a lot more closely, and I recommend you check them out.

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