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Election reform is urgent

GUEST COLUMNIST   Seattle Post Intelligencer   04 February 2005

The irregularities, machine failures, paperless ballots, disenfranchisement, lack of transparency and other issues in the 2000 and 2004 elections underscore an electoral crisis that needs to be fixed right away. Americans are losing confidence in the integrity of our electoral system, and with good reason.

The Washington recount taught us some important lessons. First, counties that used black box electronic voting machines had no way to recount or validate their vote totals. We have to take their results on faith. At the very least, machines should produce paper ballots for a manual recount and for routine audits of results.

It is extremely disturbing to see proposed legislation, HB 1025, moving from 2006 to 2007 the deadline for requiring electronic voting machines to produce a paper record of all votes. Further, this legislation would permit the substitution of auditing software for an actual paper ballot. This approach makes the problem worse.

What we need instead are machines that produce paper ballots and a system to routinely audit the results by comparing the machine results with the paper ballots in randomly ed areas. If there is a significant difference, more investigation will be required, up to a full manual recount.

These machines are also lacking in security measures. A credit card transaction on the Internet is protected much better than voting machines. Voting machines are in many cases connected by modem. Experienced hackers could obtain access by calling the modem. A small group of hackers or a single individual could alter the results in hundreds of locations by as many votes as they thought they could get away with. We don't know if this has actually happened, but if it did, we might never find out.

Second, some counties still use punch cards, which are notoriously prone to error. Voters have a hard time verifying that they actually voted the way they intended. Hand-counted paper ballots used to be used everywhere and provide the greatest confidence in the integrity of the system.

Optical scan ballots are easy to mark and easy to read.

Voters can verify that they didn't make any mistakes before they turn in their ballot and they can be recounted easily if necessary. As with any voting system, there ought to be a routine audit as part of the certification process to make sure that the count is accurate.

Machines are limited in their ability to interpret votes that any person would understand instantly. For instance, a voter unfamiliar with optical scan might circle his choice rather than fill in the little blip or a punch card machine might leave a hanging or a "pregnant" chad. The right to vote should not be denied because of a computer's limitations.

Third, there ought to be a guarantee that absentee ballots and provisional ballots actually are counted. We saw during the recount that these ballots are treated very differently in different counties. No registration or vote should be disqualified without notifying the voter and giving him or her an opportunity to correct the problem.

Provisional ballots were intended to ensure that all voters would have an opportunity to vote and have that vote counted. When a provisional ballot is needed, it should trigger an investigation of what went wrong, so that voting and registration procedures can be improved.

We call ourselves the greatest democracy in the world. We owe our country no less than to make it so.

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