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County should take time before changing systems
Touchscreen voting could replace already effective system

Published Wednesday, July 14th, 2004

The problem with touch-screen voting in Beaufort County is that it would replace a system that is working well. That affords this community the opportunity to let the dust settle on the controversial national rush to touch-screen voting before changing.

Vote-counting in Beaufort County was a nightmare back when punch cards were used. But since going to electronic scanners, results are tallied quickly and every voter gets to see on paper how he or she voted before turning in the ballot.

It's the lack of a voter-verifiable paper trail something the voter can see in writing before actually recording the vote on the screen that worries many Americans as voting goes "high tech." Many also are worried about hackers getting into computer systems, and a stronger fire wall is needed between voting-machine vendors and politicians.

But voting is like everything else in society, from car seats to fine art it will become more and more dependent on technology and that technology must constantly be upgraded. The public should remember that the "good old days" always appear to be better than they actually were. After all, it was low-tech paper that spurred the rush to touch-screen voting.

Still, it does not take much to convince the average American that computers have lots of glitches. And when it comes to voting, glitches are not tolerable. The act of voting carries an almost sacred trust that must pass higher standards than the technology in other facets of life.

There still are too many questions and concerns on the table for Beaufort County to abandon a voting system that is working well. Authorities should at the very least know by now that any change is going to have to be defended, explained and proven in much greater detail than the last change when the punch-card system was put where it belonged, on the trash heap of history. That extra scrutiny is a good thing, and both state and local leaders are going to have to prepare for it.

They're going to have to show how each voting machine and the entire county voting database is verified to be secure by an independent body not the vendors. You can bet the computerized "one-armed bandits" in Las Vegas are secure from hackers and manipulators. Voters in Beaufort County must insist that same level of security, documentation and verification is in place for every voting machine when and if touch-screen voting comes here.

Two years ago, when paperless, touch-screen voting machines already were used by nearly one in five voting precincts nationwide, more than 100 computer scientists and technologists signed a resolution warning of possible programming error, equipment malfunction and malicious tampering. They recommended a voter-verifiable paper trail.

Since then, the public has rightly been leery, even though 50 million Americans will see touch-screens in the voting booth this November.

Beaufort County should take advantage of the lessons others will learn, including the legal disputes and expense of verifying secure electronic voting before an election. And it should be prepared to do a lot of explaining to the public if it makes the switch, especially answering the question about a paper trail.

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