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Bringing the election process into the 21st century

By Ralph Munro
Seattle Times   25 November 2004

While the presidential race was settled with little controversy this election, we're not so lucky in Washington state. Our gubernatorial race is the closest in history and surrounded by controversy.

We've been in the midst of a statewide recount of nearly 3 million ballots. I empathize with Secretary of State Sam Reed, because the prospect of a statewide recount is daunting, both operationally and legally.

In the end, it is likely that this process will further erode voter confidence in the accuracy of our elections.

In Washington state and nationally, our elections are in need of fundamental modernization. Articles in the press describe problems that are difficult to substantiate because our elections produce little objective data on which to judge accuracy.

There is no way to independently audit election results end-to-end, and no way for a voter to verify that his or her vote was counted properly.

Until we correct these problems decisively, voters will continue to doubt the accuracy of election results.

Going back to paper-ballot-based systems, as suggested by some, is a half-baked solution because voters would still have no way of verifying that their vote was counted properly. And paper ballots have a long history of error and fraud.

Washington state has a proud history of leading our nation in elections. We were among the first states in the nation to implement punch-card and later optical-scan systems to replace problematic paper ballots and lever machines. We led the fight for the National Voter Registration Act, the so-called "Motor Voter" law, passed by Congress in 1993 as a way to maximize voter participation. Now, we have an opportunity to lead the nation's elections into the 21st century.

We must hold our elections to measurable standards of accuracy. Every voter should be able to verify not just that his or her vote was recorded properly at the poll site, but that it was counted properly in the results. And we must allow independent audit of elections results.

In other words, we must make electronic voting as accurate and verifiable as ATM, credit card, and other common transactions we make every day.

Think about how you bank with an ATM: You take home a receipt. You compare that receipt against your monthly statement. If you see an error, you alert the bank and kick off an audit process. Public accountants perform independent bank audits. These procedures hold the bank accountable for its handling of your money.

But when you cast a ballot ? whether electronic, optical scan, punch card, paper ballot, or absentee ? you don't get a receipt to take home and you don't get a "voting account" statement to check after the election. You walk away from the poll site or mailbox with no way to hold the election system accountable for proper handling of your ballot.

We must do better. We must bring our elections up to the same standards of verifiable accuracy as banking, credit-card transactions, electronic commerce, lotteries, express shipping, and other types of transactions we make safely every day.

The technology to do so is available now. Various companies are changing the election world with breakthrough cryptographic technology. This technology provides voters with a private take-home receipt and provides for a transparent, public audit of election results while maintaining ballot secrecy.

In January, the Washington Legislature has an ideal opportunity to require that all voters be able to take home a private receipt to verify that their vote was counted properly, and that election results be independently and publicly auditable.

I hope the Legislature takes this opportunity to move our elections forward in the 21st century.

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