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Lessons learned on voting

By Karen Nolan   Opinion for the Vacaville Reporter  27 August 2004

A wise man once said, "Learning starts with failure." If true, Solano County election officials must be getting quite an education.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors' accepted a plan to pay off Diebold Election Systems Inc. and close the books on Solano County's experiment with touch-screen voting.

It will cost the county $415,000 to get out of the $4.1 million contract - about the cost of one election, which is exactly how many times we voters got to use the system. In those terms, the settlement seems reasonable.

It also seemed reasonable for the county to pull out of the contract back in May. Certainly, Diebold hadn't lived up to its end of the agreement, which was to provide equipment that met state and federal standards. And while we didn't experience the problems that plagued other users of Diebold equipment, those experiences raised plenty of doubt about the product.

The lack of a paper trail and uncertainties about the ability to keep computerized votes from being manipulated are grave concerns that must be addressed.

That said, count me firmly in the camp of the 86 percent of county voters who liked the touch-screen system when they encountered it in the March election. It was easy to use and it had a lot of promising features: the ability to change the ballot print size, to offer ballots in more than one language and to prevent overvoting.

There's a lot to like about this technology. It's too bad we won't be seeing it again for a while.

The county replaced the Diebold deal with a $3.2 million contract with Election Systems and Software, and this November, we voters will fill in the bubbles on paper ballots that will be read by optical scanners.

It'll be just like high school, including, no doubt, the problems incumbent with the paper and pencil system back then: double-bubbling, erasures, confusion over which line to mark. It makes me wonder: Are we really better off than we were with punch ballots?

I'm hopeful, though. Election Systems has its own touchscreen system, albeit a paperless one. If states like Nevada and California have figured out ways to ensure the integrity of electronic gambling machines, surely they will eventually find ways to keep electronic elections honest.

Meanwhile, let's hope Solano officials have learned their lesson about electronic voting contracts. As George W. Bush put it: "Fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again."

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