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M.J. Andersen: Scary scenarios for upcoming elections

 Friday, August 27, 2004 in the Providence Journal (RI)

DID PAUL HAMM win the gold medal or didn't he?

Olympic fans have gone from a clear narrative involving an angel-faced come-from-behind hero to a tale of statistical error. You could argue the conclusion either way:

Hamm's South Korean rival was the victim of judging errors that, once corrected, placed him first in the men's all-around gymnastic competition. On the other hand, he delayed too long in objecting. Olympic rules prohibit late changes in results. And anyway, deductions the judges should have applied still would have kept the South Korean from winning.

It is a debate that smarts, a debate that will never end. And yet, despite the exacting stakes, this was only an athletic contest. Imagine if the prize were, say, the presidency of the United States.

Many will say they don't have to imagine; they saw this dilemma for real four years ago. We ended up with something like a statistical dead heat, with charges and countercharges of voting irregularities, the whole thing cut short by a divided Supreme Court.

Americans accepted the result. But this year, they will be less willing to roll over. The bad news is that we appear headed for an equally close call. And not only are voters less willing to trust this time around; the voting systems in place are, if anything, less trustworthy.

Without decisive action to make the vote credible, the nation could face an explosion that renders everything else about this campaign moot. Like the booing crowds that rattled the gymnastics venue this week, Americans could decide to withhold their consent.


Some 98 million votes, about 5 in 6, will be cast on electronic systems that can be rigged, according to a lengthy analysis in the Aug. 16/23 issue of The Nation.

About a third of these electronic votes will be on touch-screen machines that leave no paper trail. That makes about 3 in 10 votes unrecountable. In Florida, which determined the 2000 winner, about half the votes will be cast on such machines.

The electronic vote will largely be administered by four private companies that use secret codes to count ballots, codes they will not open to independent scrutiny. Three (Election Systems and Software; Diebold Election Systems; Hart InterCivic) have close ties or have given lopsidedly to the GOP.

In 2000, a purge of felons from Florida's voter rolls improperly disenfranchised 50,000 voters (enough to change the outcome). Recently, a judge forced the state to disclose its latest felon list: Rife with mistakes, it overwhelmingly targeted blacks, and left Republican-leaning Hispanics alone.

Claiming to investigate fraud, armed Florida troopers recently entered the homes of elderly blacks active in get-out-the-vote drives.

A New York Times study found that in 2000, Florida counted hundreds of questionable overseas ballots (e.g., un-postmarked) as legal. The flawed ballots were far more likely to be counted in Republican counties.

A New York Daily News report asserts that hundreds of people registered in both New York and Florida have illegally voted twice in an election.

Although a GOP smear campaign against him certainly did not help, veteran Max Cleland, who lost his Georgia Senate seat in 2002, may have been harmed more by insecure electronic voting machines. Several were stolen before the election; 67 unprotected memory cards, used to make Diebold-ordered programming changes, vanished Election Night. A week before the vote, a poll showed Cleland leading 49-44.

You do not have to be paranoid to fear for the integrity of the coming vote, however. The federal Help America Vote Act, of 2002, was supposed to let voters with unclear eligibility fill out provisional ballots. These can be counted once questions are resolved.

But in Chicago, in March, nearly all provisional ballots were thrown out, often because poll workers said voters had come to the wrong site. California voters were thwarted, because polling places simply ran out of provisional ballots.

In June, a new rule under the act that certain voters must present an ID apparently disenfranchised some South Dakota Indians.

Perhaps worse, a recent Washington Post study of New Mexico, where electronic balloting is state-of-the-art, suggests that the greatest danger to the November vote is programming mistakes by undertrained election workers. These could cause serious miscounts (as they did in New Mexico's 2000 balloting). There would be no way to reconstruct the results.

Bills pending in both the House and Senate would require paper trails for touch-screen machines. The idea is such a no-brainer it is stunning to think that it has been opposed. The voting-machine companies say "trust us"; whatever happened to "trust but verify"?

One option is for voters to request absentee ballots, which most states allow without requiring a stated reason. But clearly, much more must be done.

Election workers must be vigorously trained; independent security experts should ride shotgun on electronic voting machines. Valid recount strategies must be found.

And the public must get involved. It seems bizarre that the United States, of all places, should require Jimmy Carter-style election monitoring. Yet that is where we stand.

Citizens who wish to help might start by contacting Common Cause or the League of Women Voters. Those who remain unconvinced might reflect on the horrid ambiguity of Paul Hamm's victory, and consider how nightmarish the same stamp of illegitimacy would be for the next president.

M.J. Andersen is a member of The Journal's editorial board.

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