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Election flawed
Don't repeat Florida in 2004
The nightmares of the last presidential election were on paper. This year, with wide use of electronic voting, the bad dreams could appear in the form of wayward bytes in a computer's addled brain, calamitous errors by poorly trained poll workers, or manipulation by hackers - for fun or profit.

The best solution is this: Bring back paper - not punch cards with their infamous Florida chads, but paper printouts that will allow real audits of votes cast on computer voting devices.

No matter what candidates you support, your vote means zilch if it's not properly counted. Without a voter-verifiable paper trail to let people know their votes have been recorded as cast, there's no true recount. So votes can vanish into cyberspace, jump from one candidate to another, or appear from nowhere - all without recount.

The last presidential election ended with a Supreme Court decision that essentiallystopped the recounting. This year, we must avoid an election that turns on disputed votes on machines that won't even let a recount start.

Yet all over America, despite bright hopes of leaving behind the sour taste of 2000 by using new technology subsidized by Washington, many Americans will be voting on devices that may be worse in important ways than what they replace. The suppliers of these new machines used their paperlessness as a major selling point, but it's actually a significant weakness.

Watch out for 'malware'

That's not just Internet scare talk. It comes from scientists, who know the perils of programming. The new devices are called DREs (direct recording electronic). Most folks know them as touch-screen computers, similar to ATMs. Trouble is, they're susceptible both to innocent glitches and to malicious computer code, malware. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reports "an emerging consensus among computer scientists that current DREs, and to a lesser extent other computer-assisted voting systems, do not adhere sufficiently to currently accepted security principles ..."

The sad truth is that counties with 50 million registered voters, nearly 29 percent of those who registered in 2002, will be voting on electronic devices, very few of them with a paper trail.

Legislation pending in Washington, Albany and elsewhere would mandate paper printouts, but chances are slim for action in time for Nov. 2. Most New Yorkers will still be voting on the old lever machines, because it's just too late to make the switch for this year.

Meanwhile, 32 million voters registered in 2002 live in counties that will still use punch cards - including voters in such key battleground states as Ohio, which is moving toward computers but hasn't gotten there yet. The likely closeness of the race in Ohio, plus concerns about both new and old technology, could make it the next Florida.

The last election created new desire for reform and led to the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), signed by President George W. Bush on Oct. 29, 2002. But its implementation has been spotty. It authorized $3.9 billion over three years. But actual appropriations have been inconsistent, and Bush has tried to scrimp in his budget proposals.

Tardy federal action

Bush was also slow to make appointments to a new agency set up by the law, the Election Assistance Commission. Among its focuses will be testing, certification and security - all badly needed right now. The deadline for appointment of its four commissioners was Feb. 26, 2003. But Bush didn't formalize the nominations until October 2003, and the Senate didn't confirm until December. If the commission had been in place earlier the states might have moved more smoothly toward implementation and drawn down more of the funding available to their systems.

The law covers far more than funds for equipment. It also addresses crucial access issues, such as voter identification. Republicans typically want voters to produce identification, to curb fraud. Democrats argue that too strict an identification requirement can disenfranchise the poor. The federal law struck a compromise: Starting this year, first-time voters who registered by mail - but didn't supply ID with their registration forms - must produce identification at the polls.

The problem is definition. That's a key difference between bills passed last month in Albany to implement the federal law. (The good news: Both bills provide paper trails.) The Republican Senate wants a narrower range of acceptable ID, but the Democratic Assembly wants a broader list.

Broad standard for ID

On this and on several other recommendations, Newsday agrees with the New York State Citizens' Coalition on HAVA Implementation: Adopt a broad standard of ID to encourage voting. Legislators in New York and elsewhere must do nothing to further depress the nation's sadly weak voter turnout.

The federal law also confronts a nasty reality of the 2000 election: disproportionate disenfranchisement of African-American voters in Florida. It addresses this concern two ways: requiring the establishment of statewide databases of voters and expanding the availability of provisional ballots.

When poll workers contest the eligibility of voters, challenged voters can cast a provisional ballot, which is sequestered from other votes until officials can verify the voter's claim to be properly registered. Albany should agree quickly on implementing both.

In every state, those who construct the databases must make sure that, unlike Florida, they don't purge large numbers of voters who ought not to be purged. Many critics of the 2000 election point to inaccurate purging as even a larger factor than the pesky chads hanging from punch cards.

Despite the chad drama, the 2002 federal law did not ban punch cards, but set up a buyout program to encourage the switch to better technologies. So it has accelerated the move toward touch-screen machines and other computer devices. Only 1 out of 40 voters used the direct-record devices in 1980, but 1 out of 9 did in 2000. The number will clearly be higher this time.

Certainly, computers are the future of elections. Among other reasons, they are the most accessible to voters with disabilities. But lingering doubts about their reliability and accuracy are too widespread to be ignored.

As if the technical shortcomings of the machines were not worry enough, the CEO of Diebold, a major supplier, made the suspicion worse: In a fund-raising letter for Bush, Walden O'Dell pledged to deliver Ohio's electoral votes to the incumbent. That doesn't mean O'Dell is rigging his machines to steal votes, but it doesn't exactly help public confidence either.

Everyone has a role to play

O'Dell and other suppliers should work to fix the security problems with their products. Congress should fund the law adequately. State and federal lawmakers should move quickly toward requiring a paper audit trail. And citizens should work to learn the issues of access and accuracy. The Web site of the nonpartisan, nonadvocacy Election Reform Information Project is a good place to start (electionline.org). So are good-government groups such as Common Cause and NYPIRG.

The last thing the nation needs is another suspicion-shrouded election. We must all do our part to avoid that.

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