WASHINGTON - A coalition of computer scientists, voter groups and state officials, led by California's secretary of state, Kevin Shelley, is trying to force the makers of electronic voting machines to equip those machines with voter-verifiable paper trails.
Following the problems of the 2000 election in Florida, a number of states and hundreds of counties rushed to dump their punch card ballot systems and to buy the electronic touch screens. Election Data Services, a consulting firm that specializes in election administration, estimates that this November 50 million Americans - about 29 percent of the electorate - may be voting on touch screens, up from 12 percent in 2000.
But in the last year election analysts have documented so many malfunctions, including the disappearance of names from the ballot, and computer experts have shown that the machines are so vulnerable to hackers, that critics have organized to counter the rush toward touch screens with a move to require paper trails.
Paper trails - ballot receipts - would let voters verify that they had cast their votes as they intended and let election officials conduct recounts in close races.
Not everyone agrees that paper trails are necessary, or even advisable. Numerous local election officials - the ones who actually conduct elections - argue that paper trails could create worse problems than the perceived ones that they are intended to cure. They warn of paper jams, voter confusion and delays in the voting booth while voters read their receipts.
There are no national standards to help resolve the disputes. The federal commission that Congress created after 2000 to guide states is behind schedule, and the research body that was supposed to set standards for November 2004 has not even been appointed. So states, prompted by voter organizations, are taking matters into their own hands.
Nevada, which is using touch screens in all its voting precincts this November, has become the first state to require the manufacturer to attach printers in time for Election Day.
California is requiring voter-verified paper trails for any electronic machines that counties in the state buy after November; for this November, it has banned touch-screen machines unless counties meet certain security standards. Three counties are suing the state to overturn the ban and a fourth has said it plans to use the touch screens anyway.
Mr. Shelley said he was requiring counties to allow voters to vote on paper if they wanted to, even if there were no apparent problems with the touch screens. "It's a voter-confidence issue," he said in an interview. "It should be a no-brainer."
More than a dozen other states are considering legislation to require paper backups, and Congress, which had left the matter on the back burner, is considering several similar proposals.
"People are demanding this," said Representative Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who has introduced a bill to require that by November, all voters be able to cast ballots that they can verify. This would entail either retrofitting touch screens with printers or requiring a county to go back to a paper-based system like optical-scan equipment or even punch cards.
Election groups, spurred to organize after a report last July from computer security experts at Johns Hopkins University warned of touch-screen pitfalls, have encouraged a voter revolt. During the primaries this spring, groups like the Campaign for Verifiable Voting urged thousands of voters in various states to cast paper ballots rather than use touch screens without paper trails.
Unfortunately for voters in Maryland who followed that suggestion, though, local officials ruled that those paper ballots were invalid and did not count them.
"The Maryland primary was a very instructive learning experience for all activists," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a grass-roots watchdog group in Sacramento that is helping to organize voter groups across the country.
"There are movements in a lot of states, and we're sharing information," she said. She said she took it as a mark of success that 75 percent of the voting jurisdictions in the country will be using the same equipment in November as they used in 2000.
"I'd rather have voters vote on punch cards than on an electronic system that can't be verified," she said.
Ohio is the latest state to hit the paper trail. Earlier this month, Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, signed legislation requiring all counties to have paper trails with their touch-screen machines by November 2006. But the law also allows counties to use the machines this November without paper trails.
Some officials, like state Senator Teresa Fedor, Democrat of Toledo, said this made no sense. If a paper trail is so important, she asked, why should voters go through even one election without them - especially in a state where the presidential vote could be close. She successfully argued to the Legislature that Ohio counties should be able to postpone buying the machines. "There are too many concerns for us to keep a blind eye," she said.
As a result, elections boards in 31 counties are debating whether to postpone their purchases. Since Governor Taft signed the bill, 18 have voted to wait.
"Ohio is the big struggle state right now," said Will Doherty, executive director of VerifiedVoting.org, a group advocating for paper trails.
Doug Chapin of Electionline.org, a clearinghouse for election information set up by the Pew Charitable Trust, said that Ohio was "rolling the dice" to see whether paper trails were necessary.
"You can either build a fence around a cliff or put an ambulance in the valley," he said. "The paper trail is the ambulance in the valley. Certifying the machines and testing them in the first place to make sure they are secure is the fence around the cliff."
But even as some states clamor for paper trails, machines equipped to provide them are scarce.
David L. Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and founder of VerifiedVoting.org, said that models with paper trails had been tested in only a few counties. And a handful of small manufacturers provide them.
Officials from several large manufacturers have said that they could produce paper trails if they were required to, but they have so far resisted, arguing that they are unnecessary.
If more jurisdictions require them, though, vendors want to be first in line for the potentially lucrative contracts. Should a big state like New York, for example, which is considering making paper trails mandatory, joins California, the industry could probably gear up quickly.
Howard Cramer, vice president for sales at Sequoia Voting Systems, which is providing Nevada with its touch screens and printers, said that the company had no worries about the security and accuracy of its touch screens. He said he saw putting printers in Nevada as a useful experiment because other jurisdictions will require them, although he said he expected voters to become so comfortable with touch screens that they would soon drop the fad for paper trails.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company