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Voters in 10 California counties will be among the nearly one third of U.S. citizens who use electronic voting machines to cast their ballots in this year’s presidential election. But because of problems with the machines–real and perceived, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley has ordered each of these counties to give voters a choice, allowing them to vote on paper. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has launched a public awareness campaign called Paper or Plastic 2004 to inform voters of their choice. The Foundation alleges that election officials in at least three of the counties–Alameda, Orange, and Santa Clara–are either instructing poll workers not to tell voters about the choice or failing to instruct poll workers about the paper ballot option at all. The latter could be particularly troublesome come November 2 if voters arrive at the polls requesting paper ballots from workers who have no idea how to provide them.

Electronic voting machines will be used in at least 26 states next Tuesday, including Florida, California, New Mexico, Maryland, and Ohio. One objection to the machines: since all the votes are tallied digitally, a meaningful recount is impossible–you’d get the same answer each time. This is more than an academic concern: in its 18 October issue, Newsweek noted a problem case in a Florida state senate race in January. Candidate Ellyn Bogdanoff eked out a victory by just 12 votes in a runoff race for the seat. State law required an automatic recount, but none could be done. Election officials ran across something weird, though: out of almost 11,000 votes cast, 137 were blank, far more than the margin of victory. Only two candidates were on the ballot, so why would anyone bother to trek out to a polling place for an obscure runoff and walk away without casting a vote? Had there been a malfunction? Could those 137 votes belong to the losing candidate? Since there was no way to answer those questions, Bogdanoff was declared the winner.

Of the states using the new machines, only Nevada currently uses paper backups on all its machines–making them the only ones useful in case of a recount.

Other problems have already arisen in counties that allow “early voting“ for the presidential election. In Houston, for instance, voters trying to cast a straight party ticket noticed that the machines were not properly recording a vote for president. (The man who brought this to the press’s attention was, of course, both a Democrat and a computer guy.) It seems that the voters were not correctly following the instructions on the touch-screen machines used in Houston, and those who requested help from poll workers were able to straighten things out. Those who either didn’t notice the problem or didn’t receive help, however, may not have had their vote for president recorded at all.

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