The League of Women Voters rescinded its support of paperless voting machines on Monday after hundreds of angry members voiced concern that paper ballots were the only way to safeguard elections from fraud, hackers or computer malfunctions.
About 800 delegates who attended the nonpartisan league's biennial convention in Washington voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that supports "voting systems and procedures that are secure, accurate, recountable and accessible."
That relatively neutral stance was a sharp change from last year, when league leaders endorsed paperless terminals as reliable alternatives to antiquated punch card and lever systems. About 30 percent of the electorate will use touchscreen voting machines in the November election, and hardly any of the machines provide paper records that could be used in case of a contested election.
But the endorsement infuriated members from chapters around the country - particularly in Silicon Valley and other technology-savvy enclaves, where computer scientists say the systems jeopardize elections. Legitimate recounts are impossible without paper records of every vote cast, they say.
E-voting critics who attended the five-day convention, which ends Tuesday, said the league's revision was welcome - if not overdue.
"My initial reaction is incredible joy and relief," said computer scientist Barbara Simons, 63, past president of the Association for Computing Machinery and a league member from a chapter in Palo Alto, Calif. "This issue was threatening to split the league apart. ... The league now has a position that I feel very comfortable supporting."
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who introduced legislation last year that would require a paper trail for all types of voting systems, praised the league's change of heart.
"There's a grassroots groundswell across the country to make sure our elections are auditable this November," Holt said in an e-mail. "The decision by the League of Women Voters is just another sign of its growing strength."
Several big vendors have touchscreens with printers, but no models have been certified for use in elections by independent testing authorities. Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., which has a model almost through the certification process, plans to install touchscreens with "VeriVote" printers in Nevada before the November election, spokesman Alfie Charles said.
"We think elections can be sound and secure with or without a paper trail," Charles said, "but we look forward to providing both options for election officials across the country."
The league initially endorsed paperless computers, which can be equipped with headsets and programmed in multiple languages, because they make voting easy for the blind and illiterate, and for people who don't speak English.
Paperless voting has raised alarms, as several states discovered technical and other glitches in their February primaries.
Earlier this year, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned the use of a Diebold system 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.
"The league's new stance is a huge development," said Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins computer expert who discovered security flaws in Diebold software. "Their initial position was uninformed. It's encouraging to see that people come around, rather than stubbornly stick to a position that was misguided."
But it's not the first political group to change course on the hotly contested issue. Grass roots lobbying group Common Cause changed its stance in May because of questions about the reliability and accuracy of the machines.
The American Association of People with Disabilities and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights have endorsed paperless systems - despite questions about the software and hardware, and concerns about the certification process for the equipment built by Diebold Inc., Election Systems & Software Inc., Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. and other big companies.
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