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Paper trail is importantto voters

Abby Johnson

I have been a League of Women Voters member for 23 years. I know the strengths and weaknesses of the grassroots organization that was formed to advocate a woman’s right to vote. The League specializes in voting issues, but has also broadened its agenda to study and advocate on a spectrum of issues from welfare reform to national defense.

Its strength is that the League does its homework. An issue is studied in depth, in breadth and at length – often over several years – before the group agrees on a position. The position is derived from a consensus within local leagues and, more recently, through a polling process of members following a study. Then the League can take action and speak out on behalf of its members, based on the position. Its weakness is that sometimes all that information gets in the way of its goals.

The president of the League of Women Voters, Kay Maxwell, was in the news over the weekend regarding the question of paper verification of electronic voting. According to an article from USA Today, published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Ms. Maxwell said that the League of Women Voters opposes paper receipts. This was news to me.

“It’s sending the wrong message to people. That if you only do this, it settles all the problems. That’s not being fair to people; it’s not being truthful to people,” said Maxwell.

Because the entire voting system is in need of reform and funding, from voter education to poll worker training, to state voter registration systems, Ms. Maxwell asserts that the paper trail will give voters the false impression that the system works. The group also opposes the paper receipts because they say it will not provide the blind, disabled and non-English speakers the same access as other voters. The added cost of paper, ink and printers, the maintenance of equipment, and longer lines on Election Day are also used as arguments by opponents.

Nevada’s secretary of state, Dean Heller, is leading the charge for a verified voter paper trail, a paper backup for the ATM-style voting machines. Heller’s focus is accountability. Electronic machines are vulnerable to security breaches, hacking and other computer glitches, and the potential for chaotic recounts. As secretary of state, how does he prove the results of electronic voting without a paper trail?

Heller has ordered all counties to retire their punch card machines. The entire state will use electronic ATM-style machines that Clark County pioneered. The first batch of new machines will arrive in the next two weeks to the remaining counties. The initial delivery won’t include the printers that Heller has mandated, but those will follow. Nevada will receive national attention this fall because the entire state will be using electronic machines.

The League’s anti vote-verification position doesn’t ring true. If a voting machine can be likened to an ATM, why can’t the machine have an option for a receipt just as an ATM does? That’s the plan for Nevada’s voting machines. The receipt is a way for the voter to verify that the machine did what the voter wanted. The actual tabulation would still be gathered at the close of voting, along with paper verification of the electronic transactions.

The purpose of any paper trail, from my perspective as a voter, is to verify that the machine recorded my choices correctly. The receipt is an option; every voter does not want or need that confirmation.

The position of the League troubles me for several reasons. The national board adopted a broad-based inclusive position in support of improvements to the voting system, inspired by the debacle in Florida following the 2000 presidential election. That’s exactly what the League should do. But it appears to have used broad consensus on the need for electoral reform to conclude something that the grassroots League members have not agreed to.

The League’s position undermines proactive elected leaders such as Nevada’s Dean Heller who are working on electoral reform. Developing a workable system for the 2004 election should be encouraged rather than attacked.

Finally, the League’s concentration on this issue actually detracts from the organization’s mission to ensure that all voters are able vote, and ignores the larger issues of voter participation and confidence. When voters can be sure that their vote will be counted, they will vote. The paper trail will help to build voter confidence in the new electronic machines which in turn will increase voter participation and registration.

That the system can’t be fixed all at once is no surprise. That the League president would choose to oppose a voter verified paper trail in the name of all League members is unfortunate, and misrepresents the views of many League members who are questioning the League’s stand.

As a member of the League in Nevada, I’m looking forward to electronic voting, knowing that I will be able to verify my vote with a paper printout, thanks to the persistence of Secretary of State Dean Heller.

Abby Johnson consults on rural community development, public involvement and nuclear waste issues. She is married, lives in Carson City, and has one high school-aged child.