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The mid-term elections of 2006 are still 11 months away, but they’ve already generated a controversy – not over politics, but about what technology should be used to count all the votes.

After the voting fiascoes during the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which offered a total of $3.2 billion to the states to improve their vote-counting processes, most notably to replace the punch card systems that were exposed as so flawed during the recounting in Florida. States that took the money must use replacement systems in all elections after January 1, 2006. Yet widespread rancor persists over which new system is best.

The trend away from punch cards and other mechanical voting systems and toward electronic voting was underway even before the passage of the Help America Vote Act. And since 2000, the number of machines that record votes directly into memory without printing a paper record, sometimes called “direct-recording” machines, has more than doubled, largely replacing punch-card systems, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent federal agency set up by the act to improve the election process.

It sounds like an obvious way to improve the democratic process. Yet the ascendance of direct-recording voting machines hasn’t brought accolades from everyone. “They’re not auditable,” says Rebecca Mercuri, a software consultant in Mercer County, NJ, whose PhD dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania was on electronic vote tabulation systems. She argues that there’s no way for voters to know whether the machines have faithfully recorded their votes. And if election monitors don’t trust the tally that the machine prints out at the end of the day, they can’t do a manual recount – just print it out again. “That’s a reprint, not a recount,” Mercuri points out.

This well-publicized problem with e-voting machines has led to more than just complaints from experts. “Without the capacity for meaningful audits, [direct recording machines] are unfit for use in actual elections,” says Matt Zimmerman, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. On December 8, the EFF brought suit against both the Board of Elections and Office of Information Technology in North Carolina for certifying electronic voting machines from three vendors without examining the machines’ source code, as required by the state’s election law.

This fall, the U.S. Government Accountability Office summarized its own investigation of electronic voting, in a 107-page report with the rambling, but revealing title “Federal Efforts to Improve Security and Reliability of Electronic Voting Systems Are Under Way, But Key Activities Need to Be Completed.” Existing federal election standards are vague and not even mandatory, the GAO says. And, unfortunately, the agency added, any new standards issued by the Election Assistance Commission will not come in time to help with the 2006 election.

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