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OFF THE PLATE: NOVEMBER 2008

Verifying the Vote in Battleground States

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(Nov. 4, 2008)—Since the "Who Really Won Florida?" debacle of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, the way Americans view the integrity of elections has not been the same. In fact, many voters go into the polls today wondering, "Will my vote count?"

This past weekend, CNN raised an important issue related to the African American vote, featuring Obama supporters who questioned whether their votes would indeed be counted.

And why not? History has shown corruption has led politicians and their cronies to exploit the system either by buying a vote or making sure a ballot box mysteriously disappears. As for paperless voting, many states have used or still use electronic voting systems, resulting in direct reporting via electronic systems without paper records for verification, making it all too easy for one to say, "Oops," should the votes be miscounted.

This year, technology or lack-thereof, is helping to fuel what many hope will be accurate electoral results. Many states have replaced electronic voting systems that do not produce paper audit records with paper ballots or have added printers to electronic voting machines, enabling a voter-verified paper audit trail. Some states or counties are also enforcing manual audits.

It seems on most people's minds is how the battleground states will affect today's historic election and how accurate the counts will be with their ballot formats. According to the California Voter Foundation, many states have enacted automatic, post-election manual audit laws requiring the use of paper ballots or voter-verified paper audit trails to ensure vote-count accuracy—accomplished by hand-counting a sample of paper ballots or paper audit trails and comparing the hand-counted tallies to computer vote counts. So how good does it look within the 13 battleground states in terms of voting systems and manual count requirements? Here's a breakdown as prepared by California Voter Foundation president and founder Kim Alexander, and Pam Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation:

COLORADO – some good, some bad

Most Colorado counties use a mix of paper ballots or direct recording electronic systems with voter-verified paper audit trails. In 2005, Colorado passed a law requiring a manual audit of election results, with some counties using paperless direct recording electronic systems and therefore no methods for verifying accuracy later.

FLORIDA – some good, some bad

Most Florida counties have done away with paperless direct reporting electronic systems, which they used in 2004. Today, most Florida voters will cast paper ballots with a manual audit to follow, thanks to a law passed in 2007, which CVF criticizes as "weak."

GEORGIA – very bad

Georgia is still using paperless direct reporting systems statewide with no intentions to conduct a manual audit.

INDIANA – bad

Indiana will not conduct a manual audit and most counties will use a hybrid of paper ballots and paperless direct reporting systems.

MISSOURI – good

In Missouri, a manual audit is required and punch cards and paper ballots have been replaced with paper ballots, director reporting electronic systems and voter-verified paper audit trails.

NEVADA – good

Nevada was the first state to use direct reporting electronic systems that produced voter-verified paper audit trails, which are officially being used throughout the state. Thanks to an administrative code enacted in 2006, there will be a manual audit.

NEW HAMPSHIRE – good

While New Hampshire uses paper ballots with no manual audit planned, CVF reports the state's laws make it easy for a candidate to request a recount.

NEW MEXICO – very good

After New Mexico used paperless direct reporting electronic systems in 2004, thanks to a law that was passed in 2005 and went into effect in 2007, the state is now using paper balloting systems and requires a manual audit.

NORTH CAROLINA – very good

Most North Carolina counties moved from paperless direct reporting electronic systems in 2004 to a mix of paper ballots electronic voting with voter-verified paper audit trails in 2008. Based on a law that passed in 2005, there will be a manual audit.

OHIO – very good

In 2004, many Ohio counties used paperless electronic voting systems without a manual audit. This year, Ohio counties are using a mix of paper ballots and direct reporting electronic systems with voter-verified paper audit trails. Even though the law does not require a manual audit of the results, the Secretary of State has also committed to one for this election.

PENNSYLVANIA – bad

While Pennsylvania has a manual audit law, which was last updated in 1980, CVF calls the law "somewhat meaningless" given most ballots cast in Pennsylvania are not supported by a voter-verified paper audit trails. Therefore, no independent record can be used to verify the vote. Today, Pennsylvania voters will use a mix of paper ballots and paperless direct reporting electronic systems.

VIRGINIA – bad

Virginia uses a hybrid of paper ballots and paperless direct reporting electronic systems. The execution of manual audits are left to the discretion of localities and are permitted in very limited circumstances, and only after results are finalized. CVF says the recount laws are "weak, limiting election officials to review summary tapes of election results rather than actual ballots."

WEST VIRGINIA – very good

With a hybrid of paper ballots and direct reporting electronic systems with voter-verified paper audit trails, West Virginia's process to ensure accurate election results are very good. In addition, the state has a strong manual audit law, which it has had in place for several decades and last updated it in 2005).

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