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Still hanging

Both parties skeptical about fairness in Florida voting

Op-Ed in the Charlotte Observer   05 August 2004

In the land of the hanging chads, public confidence in the voting system remains shaky and for good reason.

The doubters aren't just Democrats. While Gov. Jeb Bush was reassuring Floridians that the state's new touch-screen voting machines are reliable, his own state Republican Party recently gave his assertions a vote of no confidence.

In a glossy mailer to some Miami voters, the Republican Party of Florida said, "The liberal Democrats have already begun their attacks and the new electronic voting machines do not have a paper ballot to verify your vote in case of a recount. Make sure your vote counts. Order your absentee ballot today."

Indeed, a coalition of liberal and civil rights groups has sued to force state elections officials to create a system for manual recounts of touch-screen results. Gov. Bush and state elections officials have opposed those efforts to require a paper trail on the machines.

But after the state's public embarrassment in 2000, neither party trusts the process. The state's recent inept attempt to make sure 47,000 convicted felons weren't on voter rolls further eroded confidence in the system. When an examination by the Miami Herald and other newspapers revealed that the list included names of literally thousands of people who were legally qualified to vote, the state scrapped the effort.

Not all touch-screen machines are alike. Mecklenburg County also uses touch-screen voting machines, but Michael Dickerson, the elections director, said the machines used here can print a paper ballot for every voter at the end of election day, if necessary to verify the vote. The ballots tell how each voter voted, but not which voter cast which ballot. The machines also enable voters to review the ballot choices they've made before pushing the button to cast their votes.

Some voters want to protect their votes by getting a paper receipt at the poll showing how they voted, but elections experts says the primary result of that would be to increase the efficiency of vote buying. A person paying for votes could demand to see the receipt to make sure the illegal deed was done.

No voting system is beyond tampering, but in Mecklenburg, elections officials say the touch-screen system makes the elections process less susceptible to human error than mechanical voting machines and paper ballots. Mecklenburg uses stand-alone machines, so no hacker could invade the system and reprogram all the machines to affect the results, as some experts fear could be done with a computerized voting system connected to the Internet.

As always, the easiest way to cheat is to go to the polls and pretend to be someone you're not. And the surest way to safeguard the voting process is to have well-maintained machines, well-trained voting officials and vigilant poll watchers from both parties.

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