Did Washington waste millions on faulty voting machines?

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding that have gone to upgrade the nation's voting machines since 2003 were used to purchase touch-screen systems that many states are now scrapping because of concerns about their security and reliability.

State governments in Alaska, California, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Tennessee and New Mexico have decided to replace their touch-screen electronic machines. While some states have completed the switch, others won't finish replacing the machines until 2010. Nationwide, the federal government spent $1.2 billion on new voting machines between 2003 and 2007.

Optical scanning equipment is becoming the preferred replacement because, unlike touch-screens, it preserves each voter's original paper ballot in the event of a recount.

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner is seeking to recover millions of dollars her state spent on the touch-screen machines and is urging the state legislature to require optical scanners statewide instead.

In a lawsuit, Brunner charged on Aug. 6 that touch-screen machines made by the former Diebold Election Systems and bought by 11 Ohio counties "produce computer stoppages" or delays and are vulnerable to "hacking, tampering and other attacks." In all, 44 Ohio counties spent $83 million in 2006 on Diebold's touch screens.

The Election Technology Council, a Houston-based trade group for voting machine manufacturers, recently circulated a pamphlet saying there's an "absence of evidence" to support allegations that voting machines have been used to commit election fraud. It blamed the government for a "broken system" that treats the industry as an adversary, rather than as a stakeholder.

Nevertheless, the shift away from the suspect touch-screens is gaining momentum.

Election Data Services, a consulting firm that specializes in elections, estimated that half the electorate used touch-screen voting in 2006. This year, less than a third will be using the touch screens.

"What has traditionally happened in this country is that a change in voting equipment happens once in the lifetime of an election official. With some election officials, it never happens," said EDS President Kimball Brace. "We're now upwards of almost 60 percent of the country that in the last eight years have changed their voting equipment."

Brace said touch screens would be used statewide this fall in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Nevada, Utah, Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina, and in significant parts of or pockets of a dozen other states.

Congress pushed counties toward electronic voting equipment — a reaction to the uproar over irregularities in Florida's 2000 presidential balloting. A post-election legal battle extended the presidential election for weeks, until the Supreme Court ruled that then Texas Gov. George W. Bush had edged Vice President Al Gore by 537 votes in the state. Florida gave Bush the presidency.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), creating minimum election standards and allotting nearly $3 billion to states to upgrade voting equipment, voter registration databases and otherwise to improve election administration.

Facing deadlines to spend their so-called HAVA money, counties across the country began ordering new machines. Iowa, for example, spent $18.7 million on new machines in 2006 and exhausted its allotment of HAVA money.

Meantime, computer scientists at several universities, some of whom had been hired to test voting machines for the states of California, Ohio, Connecticut and New York, reported finding security and performance flaws in virtually every system, spurring the push for a paper audit trail.

Earlier this year, Iowa's legislature joined others in reversing course, voting to use millions of dollars in state money to replace touch-screen machines in 78 of the state's 99 counties, Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro said. He said Democrats and Republicans alike "overwhelmingly want a paper trail to reconstruct the election," if needed.

Despite such shifts, voters in nearly 32 percent of the nation's precincts will rely solely on touch-screens this year, said Pamela Smith, the president of the California-based watchdog group Verified Voting.

That includes most voters in states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana and Virginia, said Susan Greenhalgh, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit group Voter Action, who called the machines "scandalously flawed . . . untrustworthy."

However, Jim Gavin, a spokesman for Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, said that 59 counties in the Hoosier State use touch screens and are happy with them after a 2006 upgrade that cost more than $20 million.

"Secretary Rokita does not intend to take actions that would cost Indiana taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to replace voting systems that have not been proven to be defective," he said.

Gary Bartlett, the executive director of North Carolina's elections board, said that about 25 counties in his state are using touch screens to serve about 40 percent of the state's voters.

"I'm not that concerned about any of the voting equipment," he said, because the state requires pre-election testing of every machine, random post-election audits and a "strict chain of custody" of the machines to prevent tampering.

Rosemary Rodriguez, the chair of the six-year-old Election Assistance Commission, an agency established to help states implement new election standards, said in an interview Friday that she doesn't favor one type of machine, but that the shift to scanners suggests that "the voters would like some assurance that their ballots could be looked at a second time, if necessary."

While many states still rely largely on touch-screen machines, Rodriguez said that she has "a high level of confidence in the system" heading into the November election.

The commission has established standards for all types of electronic voting machines, but it's still in the process of determining how to test those machines.

Rodriguez said the commission is "feeling the stress of concern that we're not up to speed."

Keith Ashdown, the chief investigator for the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, called it "sort of the classic case of the best intentions gone awry" by throwing money at a problem.

"If a little more time was spent deciding exactly what they wanted to purchase, we may not have to be starting from scratch in many counties," he said.