A battle over electronic voting is threatening the cohesion of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, whose national leadership is refusing to endorse demands by hundreds of members for a paper trail to guard against fraud, hackers and malfunctions.
Some local chapters are so angry that they are flouting regulations and planning to speak against the national stance Friday and Saturday at the league's biennial convention in Washington. They're threatening to nominate new board members and a new candidate for president who would rescind the league's support for paperless voting systems.
"We think the league has in some way failed us," said Genevieve Katz, 74, a member of the Oakland, Calif., chapter who has collected more than 700 signatures from members upset with the league's national stance on paperless terminals. "I can't remember an issue that has gotten members so upset."
The 130,000-member nonpartisan organization, a champion of social reforms and voting rights since 1920, weighed in on the e-voting controversy last year. Leaders said paperless terminals, which about 30 percent of the electorate will use in the November election, were reliable.
They had "no reason to believe" computer terminals would "steal your vote," the league said officially.
That infuriated hundreds of members from chapters around the country - particularly in Silicon Valley - who argue that the systems jeopardize elections. Legitimate recounts are impossible without paper records of every vote cast, they say.
League bylaws stipulate that local chapters must act "in conformity" with the national organization's stances. Individuals who take contrary positions cannot identify themselves publicly as league members.
League president Kay Maxwell says paperless computers, which can be equipped with headsets and programmed in multiple languages, make voting easier for the blind and illiterate, and for people who don't speak English.
Furthermore, she said, demanding a paper trail so close to the presidential election would require hundreds of counties that have installed electronic systems to spend millions of dollars on printers, paper and technical upgrades at the last minute.
Maxwell said the league could reverse its stance, but that was unlikely - particularly before November.
"We'll continue to look at this issue and others and take our stances based on where we think the facts lead us, not being concerned about anything else except being as honest as we can be," Maxwell said.
Founded by gutsy suffragettes, the league rarely shies from controversial subjects and has a history of vigorous internal debate.
Despite overwhelming support among members for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the league took no national stance. Outraged members demanded systemic changes, and by 1974 the league amended its bylaws to give the national organization more power to advocate social reform.
For current members, Maxwell said, voter registration problems and dismal turnout - particularly among minorities - should be bigger worries than potential hackers.
"From a voting rights perspective, we care a great deal about the openness of the system and access to the system, that everyone eligible be able to participate freely," Maxwell said. "But simply printing out a piece of paper will not, in our opinion, address all the security concerns. People are talking about a simple solution to a complicated issue."
Despite the league's official support for paperless voting systems, the technology has been questioned after a series of failures in elections across the nation.
In a January special election for a Florida state house seat, 134 people using paperless voting terminals in Broward County failed to cast votes for any candidate. The race was decided by a margin of 12 votes. It's unclear why some voters didn't select candidates; a without a paper trail, poll workers couldn't figure out voters' intentions.
In North Carolina's 2002 general election, a software bug deleted 436 electronic ballots from six paperless machines in two counties. Election Systems & Software Inc., which built the terminals, determined that the machines erroneously thought their memories were full and stopped counting votes, even though voters kept casting ballots.
Earlier this year, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned the use of a paperless system made by Diebold Inc. after he found uncertified software and other problems that "jeopardized" the outcome of elections in several counties. At least 20 states have introduced legislation requiring a paper record of every vote cast.
Some say the League of Women Voters' support of paperless systems has lulled politicians into thinking the machines are reliable. E-voting critic and league member Kim Alexander called the league's support of paperless systems "a significant roadblock on the path to reform."
Barbara Simons, 63, past president of the Association for Computing Machinery, is running for league president on a paper trail platform.
The league's endorsement is out of touch with younger, computer-savvy voters who "know computers are risky," she said. The average age of league members is above 50.
Marian Beddill, 68, recently resigned her position as second vice president for the chapter in Bellingham, Wash., because of the league's position on e-voting.
"It was pretty severe, but I'm passionate about protecting our votes and our ability and competence in having our votes counted correctly," she said.
Beddill doesn't plan to stop paying dues - yet - but worries that others might drop out.
"I have serious concerns that this issue could jeopardize the league in the future," she said.
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