Only a paper trail will verify our votes
Michael Fischer and Christina Spiesel

Connecticut is right now deciding what voting machines to purchase to replace our older machines under the federal Help America Vote Act.
The only way to be sure that everyone’s vote is recorded correctly, and therefore available for the count, is to have a voter verified paper trail. That means that before the machine records your vote, you have a chance to see what is about to be recorded, to make a correction if necessary and then there is a paper ballot that can be used in the event of a close race with a recount.

Some people think a paper trail is enough, but a paper trail that only prints out what the machine thinks at the end of the day is insufficient to perform a proper audit.

A properly run business keeps records in more than one place so that audits can be performed; most people do as well. You have check books and bank records; you have your receipts and the record of your credit card company. That is what we are talking about when we talk about a voter verified paper trail.

Your computer is not a toaster — even a smart toaster with chips and sensors — even though you can put something into it and have it come out processed according to your instructions.

A computer that is a voting machine consists of hardware and software. Mistakes in the chip design and manufacture can lead to bugs. Operating systems have bugs. We all have the experience of our computer crashing from time to time for no apparent reason

And, the software that enables election officials to list races and candidates and tabulate the votes can have troubles.

Nationally, we know that voting machines have stopped counting. In several states during the November elections, power problems caused by machines not properly plugged into an electrical source resulted in machines not able to record or count votes. But there was no trail that could lead to an answer as to how many votes, if any, were not counted.

Voting machines have overcounted. In Sarpy County, Nebraska, half of the precincts’ machines made one vote equal to two votes. The result was the releasing of 3,000 "phantom votes" into the county vote totals.

Voting machines have undercounted. In Carteret County, N.C., a machine, after recording and counting 3,000 votes, stopped recording or counting, and an additional 4,438 voters continued to vote. Their votes were lost.

Finally, voting machines have perhaps falsified the vote. On Nov. 2, 2004, many Americans saw a woman on television who was claiming the voting machine she was using wouldn’t let her vote for anyone but President Bush.

The claim of falsification is the hardest cause to detect. Lacking a paper trail of individual ballots, there is no way to determine if any votes were falsified.

Many problems occurred in the 2004 election and were detected. How many problems occurred and were never detected, nor even suspected, is not known. There are no paper records to help with an audit.

We don’t want those problems in Connecticut. We are the Constitution State. Right now is the time to support legislation that mandates a voter-verified paper trail. That’s the kind of safety we need to be sure that our participation in elections is real; that our votes will be counted; that we have a living democracy.

Michael Fischer, a professor of computer science at Yale University, and Christina Spiesel, a research scholar at Yale Law School, are board members of True Vote Connecticut: www.truevotect.org. Readers may write them in care of the Register, 40 Sargent Drive, New Haven 06511. Their e-mail addresses are Christina.Spiesel@yale.edu; michael.fischer@yale.edu.

©New Haven Register 2005