California's secretary of state, a proponent of backup paper records for electronic-voting machines, is nonetheless opposing their use in vote recounts as legally problematic and impractical, an opinion that could influence national voting reforms.

After months of collecting public opinion, Secretary of

State Bruce McPherson recently urged rejection of a new bill that would mandate counting of paper-trail records on

e-voting machines.

That, according to voting activists, would render paper trails useless as an independent check on voting computers and software.

"We're at risk of losing the one form of independent verification that we have when counting electronic votes," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation. "Unless it's used in a recount, there's no reason for voters to be confident in the accuracy of software vote counts."

Computer scientists latched onto the idea of paper trails after the controversial 2000 elections and a flood of new, computerized touch-screen-voting machines took the place of older punch-card and lever voting.

With a paper trail, the logic went, voters could verify their computerized ballots and elections officials would have a paper record of every vote to count as a check on the computers. More than 20 states now require a paper-trail printer on electronic-voting machines or are debating it.

"It's clear to me that the momentum is behind paper trails," said Dan Seligson, editor of Electionline.


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org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for voting reform information.

At issue is a bill authored by Redondo Beach Democrat Debra Bowen, chair of the Senate Committee on Elections and Reapportionment. No lawmaker has voted against the bill in any committee vote or in a full Senate floor vote. It is headed for a full vote in the Assembly.

"To me, it's so obviously the right thing to do to protect the integrity of the vote that it's hard to imagine the governor vetoing it," Bowen said.

"The idea is astonishing that you would go to all the trouble of a paper trail and then use it for nothing," she said.

The problem, as McPherson sees it, is the paper trail itself does not fit the legal definition of a ballot — no thick paper, no watermarks, no rules on size — but using it for recounts would treat it as if it were a ballot.

Beyond that, visually impaired voters cannot see the paper trail, McPherson said Monday. "The disabled groups really can't determine whether the paper trail accurately records their votes."

The state association of local elections officials also opposes the Bowen bill as burdensome.

For 40 years, elections officials have been required to recount 1 percent of the ballots cast in an election, selected at random. With the emergence of touch-screen machines, officials are having the machines print out images of the electronic ballots, and they are recounting those.

University of California, Berkeley, law professor Deirdre Mulligan said it is hardly surprising that paper trails do not meet the legal definition of a ballot. "It's true," said Mulligan, who teaches law at Boalt Hall and directs the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic. "We have these laws that haven't kept pace with technology."

But if the governor agrees with McPherson's opposition based on a "technicality," she said, "you're kind of left with a poor choice. The electronic ballot images that they're talking about counting are less likely to provide a check on the machine."

McPherson proposes pooling federal voting-reform money for several states and devoting it to research on the best way to verify electronic voting.

The paper trail still would have value, he argued, "just to give any voter who might go into the booth a double-check: 'This is how I voted.' It's just to give voters more assurance."