As alarm mounts over the integrity of the ATM-like voting machines an estimated 50 million Americans are scheduled to use in education referenda, school board elections, and other vital balloting next November, a new federal panel has begun scrutinizing how to safeguard electronic polling from fraud, hackers, and faulty software.

Scientists told the panel during a May 5 hearing that electronic voting isn’t completely reliable and suggested that a backup paper system might be the only way to avoid another disputed presidential election this fall.

But the commission’s Republican chairman said he did not expect the bipartisan panel to issue national standards requiring paper receipts when it makes its final recommendations in June.

“We will not decide on what machines people will buy,” said DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the newly created U.S. Election Assistance Commission, saying it was not the panel’s role to tell states what to do. “We will say–if California wants to have a backup paper system–what national standards it should follow.”

At least 20 states are considering legislation to require a paper record of every vote cast, after rushing to get touch-screen voting machines to replace paper ballots following Florida’s fiasco with hanging chads in the 2000 presidential election.

Aviel D. Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, summed up the testimony of several science witnesses when he criticized electronic voting systems as terrible and highly vulnerable to hackers.

“Not only have the vendors not implemented security safeguards that are possible, they have not even correctly implemented the ones that are easy,” he said.

Others argued that electronic voting offers advantages over paper punch cards, such as the inability to vote twice. They warned that backing up electronic systems with paper ballots would be costly and could create unnecessary confusion for voters and poll workers.

“We would be negligent in our duty if we foisted an untested and untried experiment upon the voters,” said Kathy Rogers, director of election administration for Georgia, which switched to electronic voting in 2002.

If 1 percent of Georgia precincts had problems because of demands of new, complicated equipment under a backup paper system, Rogers said, that would represent “a situation that no doubt would be portrayed by the media and perceived by the public as a catastrophic failure.”

Congress created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which began distributing $3.9 billion to states to upgrade voting systems after the disputed 2000 presidential election.

The controversy escalated to new levels earlier this year, when a software glitch marred the presidential primary in California’s San Diego County. Since then, questions about the integrity of such machines have continued to mount.

In the wake of the March 2 California primary, the state’s top elections official called for a criminal investigation of Diebold Election Systems Inc. as he banned use of the company’s newest model touch-screen voting machine, citing concerns about its security and reliability. The ban will force up to 2 million voters in four California counties, including San Diego, to use paper ballots in November, marking their choices in ovals read by optical scanners.

Diebold issued a statement saying it was confident in its systems and planned to work with election officials in California and throughout the nation to run a smooth election this fall. But California’s decision reflects a growing concern among state officials that the use of touch-screen technology could cast doubt on the results of contests and referenda from coast to coast.

It’s not just the presidential race that is at stake. Last fall, a former Fairfax County, Va., school board member questioned the outcome of that county’s school board elections after failing to retain her seat.

At-large school board member Rita S. Thompson–who received 77,796 votes, falling 1,662 short of reelection–said she heard reports throughout the day of the county’s touch-screen devices malfunctioning. Though a subsequent investigation found no evidence that a few allegedly minor voting machine glitches had tainted the election’s outcome, the controversy served to further ignite concerns. (See “Critics turn thumbs down on touch-screen voting,”

The issue has potentially huge ramifications. Vendors that developed electronic polling have a financial stake, while state and local officials fear a last-minute change that would require new equipment and additional training for thousands of poll workers.

Voting rights groups, meanwhile, worry about potential recounts that lack a paper trail, but some non-English speakers and visually impaired citizens favor an electronic system that empowers them to vote without the aid of a poll worker.

Phil Singer, a spokesman for the presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry, said May 5, “After what happened in Florida in 2000, making sure that there is a reliable paper trail in place to account for every vote is just common sense.”

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, told reporters that printers for making receipts have not been manufactured for the electronic voting machines in his state, but he suggested he is not concerned about using the machines in November.

“I’m afraid a lot of the concerns about this are really to try to create a cloud of controversy during the election to motivate people to vote, and there’s got to be a better way to do that,” Bush said. “You can talk about issues and ideas, maybe, instead of scaring people.”

During the March 2 presidential primary, machines that determine which ballots voters receive malfunctioned in about one-third of the precincts in California’s San Diego County, and officials there say a lack of paper ballots might have disenfranchised some voters.

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate allegations of fraud, saying the maker of the touch-screen systems, a subsidiary of automatic teller machine maker Diebold Inc., of Ohio, had lied to state officials. A spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer said prosecutors would review Shelley’s charges.

“I anticipate his decision will have an immediate and widespread impact,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation and a frequent critic of the machines. “California is turning away from eVoting equipment, and other states are sure to follow.”

Diebold, the leading supplier of touch-screen machines, has been a frequent target of voting-rights groups, though most California county election officials say that problems have been overstated and that voters like the touch-screen systems first installed four years ago.