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Voting system too vital to change

by Kai Hagen

Oct. 9, 2003

Frederick County is far from the electoral fiasco in Florida and the current chaos in California, but problems there and elsewhere have led to sweeping changes that will affect everyone. Some are long overdue reforms, while others may be worse than the problems they are trying to solve.

If anything is both secular and sacred in our country, it is voting. Our democracy depends on a clear and honest system for casting and counting votes. The system has never been flawless, of course, but many Americans have long taken the basic process for granted. Periodic problems and examples of corruption have been viewed as exceptions that prove the rule.

Voting in the United States has been evolving since the franchise was extended only to white landowners. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted black citizens the right to vote in 1870. The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1919. The 24th Amendment outlawed poll taxes or other taxes as a condition for voting in 1961. The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971. One step at a time, the extension of the right to vote has brought us closer to our cherished ideal of a government by the people, for the people.

But the 2000 election made it clear there are serious problems that need fixing. We became familiar with hanging chads and butterfly ballots, as well as malfunctioning voting machines, inadequately staffed polling places, state-sponsored purges of thousands of legitimate voters who were incorrectly identified as felons, and more.

And that's just some of the problems in Florida.

All the attention exposed real problems in many states. To address them, Congress rushed to pass the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The sweeping legislative package does include some good elements. For example, HAVA mandates states to offer provisional voting special ballots that allow for post-election verification of eligibility for all voters who claim they are registered but are not on the rolls.

HAVA also calls for the president to appoint, with the advice of the Senate, members to an independent Election Assistance Commission. Among other things, the commission will create a committee to establish standards and oversee compliance of the law by voting machine companies.

The commission has not been established, however, even though hundreds of millions of federal dollars have been funneled to states to purchase electronic voting machines and license the software from private corporations. That is moving ahead despite the absence of federal standards for the machines and their operating software, and despite a long list of serious questions and concerns about ownership, control, security and accuracy.

So ... even though we are quick to adopt new technologies, and we want immediate solutions and instant results, we ought not rush to adopt new electronic voting machines. Especially not new touch-screen machines, which leave no paper trail of the actual hand-cast vote, and could not be followed and audited if there was evidence of voting fraud. There is too much at stake.

Yet, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reached a quick agreement with Diebold Election Systems to provide $55.6 million worth of new touch-screen computer terminals to Maryland, including Frederick County. A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, though, suggested the machinery is hopelessly flawed and should never have been certified in the first place. The report helped publicize an already heated debate between some 900 computer scientists, who warn that the machines are untrustworthy, and some election officials and voting machine manufacturers.

In response, the governor ordered a review by computer security experts at Science Application International Corp. The review, released in September, found 328 security weaknesses in the system. Twenty-six were considered critical flaws, including some that could leave elections open to tampering or allow problems to go undetected.

Apparently, Ehrlich sees the glass as half full. He decided to honor the huge contract and try to correct the problems before the state begins using the machines in the March presidential primary.

We need to minimize lost votes and fraud. But the precinct-level optical scan systems, such as the one currently used in Frederick County, has consistently shown the best average performance, with the lowest rate of uncounted, unmarked, and spoiled ballots in presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial races.

An evaluation of voting systems by the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project found touch-screen voting systems performed worse than the mechanical lever machines, optically scanned paper ballots and hand-counted paper ballots during the 2000 election. Only punch-card machines performed worse than touch-screen systems.

The range of issues and concerns is far greater and more complex than anything one can adequately address in a single column. But you have to wonder if something is wrong when you need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out ... or a computer scientist, anyway.

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