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Electronic voting has problems so do other ways

Last Updated: March 15, 2004, 06:35:16 AM PST

Most people wouldn't think that counting votes is that complicated. And most people would think that any kind of counting would be made easier by a computer.

Most people would be wrong. For instance, people can vote with a hole punch, but chads can hang and mess up the count. People can vote with a pencil, but marks can smear and be misread by scanners. People can vote on a computerized touch screen, but the computer might crash ... disabled people might not be able to see or reach the screens ... hackers might change the results.

That hackers might change votes is both the least and most worrisome problem. The least, because e-machines make it harder for traditional cheaters. The most, because a really good digital-vote fixer could change things on a mammoth scale and there might not be any way to recount the votes.

So how can elections be made more fair, more efficient and more secure all at once?

San Joaquin County's registrar of voters, Deborah Hench, thought she had the answer on election night. She was delighted with her Diebold TSX touch-screen voting machines, saying "we had a great election day, overall."

But "great" doesn't mean "flawless."

The machines are not networked, meaning each machine had to be taken to a central location so results could be downloaded for counting. That eliminated the possibility of votes being tampered with over nonsecure phone lines. But it caused quite a scare when some of the machines were "unaccounted for" late Tuesday night. Officials were frantic until they located them. Of course, that could have happened with paper ballots, too.

The Diebold system has been criticized by Avi Rubin, a computer professor at Johns Hopkins University, for not providing a "voter verifiable" printout to be used in a recount. He calls all such voting machines "a threat" to democracy.

He's not alone. Groups representing the disabled have sued four counties over accessibility issues. San Joaquin County was not sued because its machines are wheelchair accessible and have audio feedback for the visually impaired.

Thursday, two state senators asked Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to decertify the electronic systems in the 14 counties that used them. They're worried about fraud but terrified of glitches that would make California the "Florida of 2004."

If Shelley throws out the e-voting machines, it will disappoint Hench. Her poll workers loved them and she got few voter complaints. Also, her TSX machines have onboard printers that could provide a printed audit trail.

Shelley should act on a county-by-county basis and not decertify machines in counties where there were no problems. If voters don't yet trust e-machines, they can request absentee ballots.

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