By Cameron W. Barr, Washington Post Staff Writer
A federal panel voted yesterday to begin developing a national standard that could result in the gradual phasing out of the paperless electronic voting machines in use across the Washington region and in many parts of the country.
The "next generation" of voting systems should have an independent means of verifying election results, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee said. The standard would have to be adopted by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
"This seems to mark the end of an era" for paperless electronic voting, said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan organization that tracks changes in the country's election systems.
The commission and its advisory panel have yet to determine when the new standard would go into effect and how it would apply. A report prepared by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology last week said the new standard would not be implemented until 2009 at the earliest.
Some politicians indicated yesterday that they would move more quickly to add verification systems -- also known as paper trails -- to voting systems that lack them.
The speaker of Maryland's House of Delegates, Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), said the legislature would start exploring options for a paper trail during its upcoming session with an eye toward having something in place for the 2008 elections.
"It would be nice if we could get a look at a couple of options," Busch said. "The price tag is going to be great."
Maryland Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley (D) said his administration would "have to find some way to move forward" and noted that a transition panel is looking at election issues.
Maryland is one of five states that exclusively use electronic voting systems that offer no independent means of verifying an election result. Virginia and 10 other states, as well as the District, use such systems in some jurisdictions or allow voters to choose whether to use them or some other voting system.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said he plans a careful review of the findings. "I'm going to take a look at this report. I've talked to a lot of people who are very concerned about electronic machines without a paper trail," he said.
Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), a main sponsor of unsuccessful legislation in Virginia's General Assembly last year that would have required the state to launch a paper-trail pilot program, said: "I think the committee recommendations will help validate what we have been doing. It will really make people stand up and pay attention."
District Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty (D) said in a statement that the red flags raised by the federal panel had caught his attention and that "we need assurances that election outcomes are reliable. As Mayor, I will work closely with the Council and the Board of Elections to make sure that the District of Columbia's election process is regulated and administered in a fashion that supports the report's findings and is in-line with best practices from around the Country."
In unanimously approving the resolution yesterday, members of the panel made it clear that they would not recommend that states stop using such systems "at this time" as long as proper security measures are in place.
The panel also said the commission should ensure that all voters -- including disabled ones -- "can verify the independent voting record." Advocates for people with disabilities have said that existing systems of verification, such as electronic voting machines that show voters a printed summary of their choices before they cast their ballots, would not be accessible to blind voters.
The voting-machine industry will have to come up with new technology to satisfy the need to provide verification accessible to all voters, said James C. Dickson, vice president for governmental affairs at the American Association of People with Disabilities. That means it could be 2020 before the voting systems envisioned by the panel are "widely available in polling places."
A supporter of the paperless electronic machines, Dickson disputed the notion that the panel's resolution meant the end of an era for such systems. "Era, schmera," he said. "There isn't any money to buy anything else."
The panel considered a similar resolution Monday but deadlocked and failed to pass it. The version adopted yesterday contained new language that grandfathers in existing systems, calls on the commission to ensure that verification systems are universally accessible and credits election officials and voting-machine makers for adopting security controls.
Michael Newman, a spokesman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said the panel, which the institute is advising, would have until the end of July to prepare a draft set of standards that would then be considered by the Election Assistance Commission.
The commission would solicit public input before adopting new standards. The standards are voluntary, but many state laws require voting systems to meet federal or national criteria before they can be used.
Staff writers Tim Craig, John Wagner and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.
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