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Don't compromise secret ballot

There's no question that electronic voting machines purchased by the state of South Carolina must maintain a paper trail. A paper record of vote tallies is necessary to ensure that results haven't been tampered with, and to provide for challenges to ballot results. In contrast, providing an individual receipt to each voter, as recommended by one lawmaker, could actually be used to compromise the inviolability of the secret ballot.

The presence of a paper record for each voting machine used in the state will ensure that the state's voting outcomes aren't compromised by computer hackers. Computer experts have raised serious questions about the safeguards in some electronic voting machines that don't maintain a paper record of tallies.

But Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, has urged the state Election Commission to require an actual ballot receipt for each voter showing how he voted, The Associated Press reports. A spokesman for the state chapter of Common Cause supports Rep. Neal on the issue.

But Marci Andino, director of the S.C. Election Commission, has raised substantive objections to the yet untried concept. Most serious is her concern that a receipt could be used to encourage vote buying, since it is a written record of a vote that could be traded for cash.

In addition, the process of printing a receipt for each voter would increase the time spent in the voting booth and make the process more cumbersome, she notes. That could be a fairly serious problem in view of the long ballots that South Carolinians have been faced with in recent elections. Recent state ballots have included, for example, multiple and wordy constitutional questions.

Steve Skardon, a member of a citizens committee appointed to advise the state on election reform, tells us that demands for individual voting receipts reflect "a huge fear of the technology" that is unwarranted. Mr. Skardon, who directs the Palmetto Project, a public interest group, also tells us that all the machines under consideration by the state have fail-safe systems, including one that will provide a paper trail of votes tallied at each machine.

A printed tally for each voting machine is essential for local and state election officials to guarantee the integrity of the election process.

But Ms. Andino points out that most of the 11 counties getting new equipment for the next election don't want individual voter receipts because of the potential problems with voting logistics.

Federal funds are now available for electronic voting machines in the state's optical-scan and punch-card counties before the November election. Results from the 2000 election show that some of those counties had some of the most questionable results in the state. The conversion of all the state's counties to electronic voting should proceed, and the new machines should provide a paper trail that serves as a backup in the event of election challenges. But they should stop short of providing a copy of a voter's secret ballot that could compromise the process, including subjecting the voter to outside intimidation. It's not all that far-fetched that there could be political pressure on voters to produce their receipts.

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