Soon, the Shelby County Election Commission will decide what kind of voting machines it will buy to replace the geriatric Shouptronic machines that have been used here for two decades.

The Election Commission needs about 1,500 new machines. The financial cost will be millions of dollars. The cost of the wrong decision is incalculable, resulting in a lack of voter confidence that undermines the integrity of election results.

At issue is whether the Shelby County Election Commission officials will opt for voting machines with the safeguard of a paper back-up. In this age of computer wizardry, there is the prevailing feeling by many that such a fail-safe system of accountability is unnecessary.

It seems like a good time for county election commission members to read a recently released General Accounting Office (GAO) which found “significant concerns” about security, access, and hardware, as well as weak security management practices by voting machine vendors.

The report identified specific problems that included:

• Problems with security

• Problems in access controls

• Problems with the machine controls

• Weak security practices by machine vendors

In addition, the GAO cited multiple examples of failures in actual elections that resulted in undervoting, the display of the wrong ballots and lost votes.

“Security experts and some election officials have expressed concern that tests currently performed by independent testing authorities and state and local election officials do not adequately assess electronic voting system security and reliability,” the report said. “These concerns are amplified by what some perceive as a lack of transparency in the testing process.”

While electronic voting holds promise, according to the report, the survey found some voting systems did not encrypt cast ballots or system audit logs, and it was possible to alter both without being detected; it was possible to alter the files that determine how a ballot looks and works so that the votes for one candidate could be recorded for a different candidate, and vendors installed uncertified versions of voting system software at the local level.

In the U.S. today, the majority of elections use one of two types of electronic voting systems: optical scan systems and direct recording electronic (DRE) systems. Optical scan systems use electronic technology to tabulate paper ballots (about 35 percent of registered voters cast ballots on these machines in the 20004 election). An optical scan system is made up of computer-readable paper ballots, appropriate marking devices, privacy booths and a computerized tabulation device. The ballots are tabulated by optical-mark-recognition equipment which senses the marks on the ballots.

The DRE’s capture votes electronically without the use of paper ballots (about 29 percent of voters used this technology in the 2004 elections). DREs have two primary models – push button or touch screen. Touch screen is the newest model, and with it, all information is presented on a single full-face ballot. Some systems tally votes with a removable storage media taken from the machine to a central location to be recorded. Others can be configured to electronically transmit the vote totals from the polling place to a central location.

It seems probable that the Shelby County Election Commission will vote to purchase the DRE machines with touch-screen technology. A word of warning: the GAO reported security flaws in some DRE systems, such as one model that failed to password-protect the supervisor functions; the same PIN programmed into all supervisor cards nationwide; unsecured smart and memory cards that allowed voters to cast multiple ballots; one model allowed its locks to be easily picked; and various lapses in security.

The problems paint a powerful case for buying machines with a “voter-verified paper audit trail.” While many DRE voting machines claim to have an “audit” function, it leaves much to be desired, because it is actually just the results from the voting machine’s computer, and the record can’t tell you whether votes have been tampered with.

The voter-verified paper audit trail has been endorsed by the national commission on election reform, and in light of the persistent reports and rumors about election fraud in Memphis and Shelby County, it would seem to be an investment in voter confidence that could not be more timely.

Already, 10 states require voter-verified paper audit trails for new voting machines on the basis that it is the only way to ensure that each vote is counted.

The last time the Shelby County Election Commission bought voting machines, they lasted for 20 years. And that’s precisely why this is a decision that the Election Commission has to get right.