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Opponents of change a threat to electronic voting

By Mike Langberg

Mercury News

Fear of change is a universal human emotion, and it often erupts when new technology comes along to alter an established and comfortable way of doing things.

This fear can sway people away from thoughtful consideration of risks and rewards, pushing them into panic reactions where new ideas are weighed down by unfair expectations.

That's happening right now with electronic voting.

A loose coalition of computer security experts and their supporters are painting a dire picture of touch-screen voting systems, darkly suggesting they can be hacked at will by anyone from corrupt politicians to foreign governments.

``Will Your Vote Count in the Next Election? Maybe not! How will we even know?,'' screams the home page of Verified Voting (www.verifiedvoting.org), founded by David L. Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University.

``Paperless electronic voting systems are failing us. Worse yet, resistance from the elections official community is astonishing!,'' the page breathlessly continues. ``Our democracy is at stake and the time for action is now!''

Whoa there.

Our existing election system, with lever-operating voting machines and punch cards, is deeply flawed. We all got slapped in the face by the 2000 presidential election, when George Bush squeaked into the White House because of a confusing ballot design in Palm Beach County, Fla., that took votes away from Al Gore.

Touch-screen electronic voting systems, just now being introduced in California, aren't perfect. But they hugely reduce voting errors, and in the long run, at least are likely to reduce the cost of running elections.

Of course, it's essential that elections are protected from malicious interference.

Does that mean we should wait for electronic voting systems that are absolutely secure?

No. But it's the wrong question to ask.

The right question is: Will electronic systems, when implemented with a reasonable degree of caution, be more secure than what we've got now?

The answer is yes.

In November, I used a touch-screen voting machine for the first time at a polling place near my home in Cupertino. I found it easy to understand, and I particularly appreciated what happened at the end of a process: a screen summarizing the votes I'd cast, giving me a chance to go back if I'd made a mistake.

The old punch-card voting system always felt like some elementary-school leather-working project run amok, as I squinted down and tried to make sure the little awl went into the correct tiny hole.

Automated punch-card counting equipment is prone to all kinds of errors, but we don't worry about it because punch cards aren't new. Nor do we worry about hackers attacking the computers that tally the punch-card results.

My colleague Elise Ackerman has done a string of excellent articles in the past few weeks reporting on the growing controversy around electronic voting. It's clear some of the early e-vote hardware and software has glitches and security holes, although there's no evidence these shortcomings are part of some deliberate conspiracy to undermine our democracy.

It's appropriate to bring pressure on public officials and the companies that make voting equipment to identify and fix the problems.

It's not appropriate, as Dill and others are doing, to stir up panic that could delay much-needed improvements in the voting process.

What's more, at least one of the cures proposed by Dill might be worse than the disease.

Verified Voting's biggest agenda item is requiring electronic systems to produce a paper record of each vote cast. The printout could be examined by the voter, although not removed from the polling place, and could be used for recounts.

This sounds sensible on the surface, but might create a whole new set of problems, as pointed out by Ted Selker, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who's emerging as the most vocal opponent of paper.

Installing and maintaining printers in every polling place across the nation would be very expensive. Voters treasure democracy, but seem reluctant to fully fund the county registrars who must run elections.

Printers are also finicky, as we all know from groaning at blinking paper-jam lights. Printing individual ballot confirmations could greatly slow down voting. How long do you want to stand in line on election day?

But the biggest concern, Selker says, is fraud. Few politicians have enough computer smarts to alter electronic voting machine software; it would be much easier to run off a handful of phony paper ballots, blame the resulting mismatch on faulty computers and get legitimate votes thrown in the trash.

I spoke with Dill earlier this week and found him much calmer on the phone than you'd expect from his end-of-the-world Web site. Summing up his views on electronic voting, he said: ``Think before you use it.''

I agree with both parts of that statement. Let's think, but let's also use it.
Contact Mike Langberg at mike@langberg.com or (408) 920-5084.

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