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Computerized Voting Machines Bring Relief, Fear for Upcoming US Election - 2004-09-05

Four years after a hotly contested and highly controversial election tested the nation's faith in the integrity of the balloting process, another hotly contested election is on the horizon. In the intervening years, the federal government has given the states billions of dollars to update and upgrade their voting technology, to boost public confidence in elections nation-wide.

Many states have replaced their paper punch-card systems with electronic touch-screen voting machines. But computer experts warn that this new technology is susceptible to bugs, tampering and failure, and has no reliable mechanism for performing a recount. As Nevada wraps up its primary election, Ky Plaskon reports that the state has taken a bold step toward the best of both worlds.

Trainer: "Last one, come on, push, push, push, com'on come on, come on, grrrrrrrr, grrrr."

This weightlifter plans to flex his political muscle in a little while. He'll step right out side the gym and vote at a trailer in the parking lot. "Yeah, I will definitely go put my two cents in if it is worth even that," he said.

Nevadans have had 18 days to cast their primary ballots. This "early voting" is one thing some states are doing to provide better access to polls and increase voter confidence in the election process, something that's definitely lacking in this weightlifter. "I think it is all a rip-off scam anyway," he added.

After the 2000 election debacle in Florida shook this man's and the nation's trust in the reliability of paper ballots, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. Lawmakers appropriated four billion dollars to help states deploy new voting technology in an effort to increase voter confidence. Many states bought direct recording electronic voting machines, or DREs, which keep an electronic record of votes. But with public concern that the computer program could be manipulated and the data lost, Nevada spent $9 million this year to add a paper trail of votes.

"This is your voting card, you are registered as a non-partisan voter. Okay? Just follow the directions on the screen. It is that simple," says a poll worker.

Voters here are casting their ballots on electronic machines, but unlike any other state, Nevada is using printers with thousands of its DREs.

Each voter can verify that the ballot printed by the machine matches their electronic choices. Then the paper copy is filed as an election record. Since the system was put in place last month, there have been a few problems: in some polling stations, the paper wasn't installed correctly, temporarily disabling the machine.

But paper jams are the least of the reasons many election officials oppose the use of printers. They say it's an unnecessary back-up and they've been calling Nevada's Secretary of State Dean Heller to tell him so.

"I have had election officials call from across the country, they don't identify themselves," says Mr. Heller. "They will call my elections division, and say 'We understand that you are adding a paper trail to these electronic voting machines, I hope you fail.' And then they'll hang up."

Mr. Heller says his state's system will succeed, but to be sure, after the election, Nevada will conduct a wide-scale audit to compare the paper records to the electronic outcome. Clark County Assistant Registrar of Voters, Donna Cardinelli expects the highly scrutinized DRE machines to stand the test.

"I've been testing it here for two weeks and it is wonderful," she said. "And I am a person with integrity and those voting machines have been counting your ballots right all along, there is not question in my mind."

Across the country, election officials with a similar level of confidence have spent billions for DREs without printers. Georgia concluded the $8 million -$10 million to retrofit its DREs for printing was prohibitive, and does not plan to offer a paper backup on election day. Maryland plans to buy $56 million worth of DREs without printers. But 16 other states have considered requiring printer capability on their voting machines. Nevada's requirement means that $2 million worth of old refrigerator-sized voting machines will be scrapped if a printer can't be developed for them. It'll cost $5.6 million to replace them with printer-ready DREs.

With or without printers, the record amount of money being spent on this election is giving some voters confidence in the new technology. Mohammed Miah Agadir, a cook stepping out of an early voting site, remembers casting a paper ballot back in Bangladesh.

"They spend a lot of money for paperwork, but here I think with the computer, they are saving a lot of money," he said. "All over the world we should use a computer like this, it is very modern technology and we save more time, more energy, more manpower."

After the primary today, workers will pull the paper records. They'll cross reference them with what the DREs report to make sure they are the same results, verifying if at least Nevada's investment in DREs is paying off with more trustworthy results.