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Fear and voting in an electronic age
By Karla Hailer-Fidelman
Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Because of what happened to thousands of people across Florida during the last presidential election, the Help America Vote Act was passed into law.

     This enabled communities across the nation to replace faulty voting machines with more accurate electronic machines.

     Across this country there are voting machines with no paper trail that can be easily hacked into. Our secretary of state, Bill Galvin, ruled out touch-screen machines as they break easily and leave no verifiable paper trail and went with optical scan machines, such as the new ones here in Newton.

     You would think that we wouldn't have a problem at all counting votes. We have a paper ballot that is counted via an optical scanner. This leads to the assurance that our votes are counted and can be easily recounted.

     Or does it?

     Back in the day when all things were manual, poll watchers could walk into any polling station and monitor the process. If something fishy occurred, they could speak up and relate the results of their observations - but how do you do that with bits and bytes?

     Then of course, there are those who feel like what difference does one vote make? To answer that question, you have to look at Florida four years ago.

     "Oh no, not Florida again," you may be saying, "We've heard all too much about Florida. It's not like we have hanging chads and such here in Massachusetts."

      First off, you believe that, you'd be wrong - just ask anyone in Quincy about that as a hanging chad recount wreaked havoc down there a few years back when it came to electing Gerry Studds successor to Congress.

     But I wanted to bring up Florida for a reason. Four years ago, I was in a chat room with a group of friends from around the country on Election Day.

     One of my friends is a Navy veteran who served with honor and settled in Jacksonville after he mustered out. He registered to vote when he got his Florida driver's license and he vented his story that day.

     When the attack on the USS Cole happened, it angered him as he watched as the Republican-led Congress prevented the president from going after the man responsible: Osama Bin Laden. While he fully recognizes that is his opinion of what happened, it was a disturbing moment for him.

     At that time, Bin Laden was not a household name in this country and the whole lobbing missiles at empty tents in Afghanistan was something that was made fun of in the media. In the meantime, he was ignoring some of the reports that Katherine Harris, the head of elections in Florida (as well as the secretary of state in Florida and the chair of the Bush campaign there), was scrubbing voter lists. Why would that concern him, he was a Navy vet who worked hard to support his family and played by the rules.

     Then, on Election Day, he went to vote only to find out he was scrubbed from the voter lists in the motor-voter registration snafu. He was denied his Constitutional right to vote and was livid.

     My first response was, "C'mon, it's not like Gore is going to lose by one vote in Florida."

     He said that wasn't the point. He had the right to vote and he resented that some clerical snafu prevented him, and several others at his polling location in Jacksonville, from doing so.

     When all was said and done a month later, he simply said, "I knew my vote would have mattered."

     The main problem with electronic voting is that the same platform that allows your PC to crash on a regular basis is counting our votes. We, the voter, don't know the software at all - but that doesn't mean there aren't those that don't have questions. For example, we know that we check in and out at the tables, but who is watching the memory card slots? Could someone come up and tamper with the machines that way?

     How are the ballot boxes and paper ballots handled at the end of the day?

     What procedures are in place to guard our votes? These are all very real and very valid questions. While I trust our election commissioner, Peter Karg, and the work he's done, I don't trust other people out there. This time through, it's the Presidential race. What if this race were another close override battle? Would I feel as confident that our polls were secure - that someone couldn't hack the software or hardware as way to win at all costs?

     It's a hard call. As a citizen, I want to know what software is loaded, who loaded it and what procedures are in place to make sure things aren't messed with here in Newton. I hope that there is something sent to the TAB from the mayor's office for next week that answers the concerns and questions that makes sure our vote counting procedure is as accurate as well monitored as the scales that weigh our produce in the local supermarkets.

     As my friend reminded me four years ago, every vote matters.

     But all that is moot if you don't register to vote. Oct. 13 is the last day you can register to vote in the November election and City Hall will be open until 8 p.m. that night. So register and vote. If you don't, then don't complain to me about the government because you got the one you deserve by not speaking up.


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