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Georgia election data shows black precincts saw biggest voting improvements

The Associated Press - ATLANTA   02 December 2004

Precincts with high percentages of black voters saw the greatest improvements in voting accuracy using Georgia's electronic voting machines in the recent general elections, according to figures released by the Secretary of State's office.

The statewide percentage of ballots that did not include a vote in the presidential race plummeted from 3.5 percent in the 2000 election to 0.39 percent this year.

An analysis of results from precincts where more than 80 percent of registered voters are black showed even more dramatic s. In 77 of those precincts studied by the Secretary of State's office, the percentage of so-called "undervotes" in the 2000 presidential election was 6.7 percent _ almost twice the state average. This year, that percentage ped to 0.69 percent.

A similar look at precincts with more than 80 percent white voters showed a smaller, but still significant, decrease _ from 3.15 percent in 2000 to 0.21 percent this year.

"This was the first opportunity to have an apples to apples comparison," said Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Secretary of State Cathy Cox. "To be able to see dramatic improvement in the accuracy of the vote count is not only a positive outcome, but just confirms what we set out to do four years ago."

The Nov. 2 election marked the fifth time that the state's $54 million electronic voting system was used for a statewide ballot, and the first time in a presidential election. Adopted in 2002, the touch-screen machines replaced a hodgepodge of punchcards, optical scan machines and paper ballots.

Elections officials acknowledge that a handful of voters don't anyone in presidential races, but assume that a noteworthy percentage of such votes suggests a problem.

Precincts in poor and minority neighborhoods have traditionally had higher undervote rates, largely due to old or faulty voting equipment, experts say.

The greatest reduction in undervotes was in a Muscogee County precinct, where presidential no-votes ped from 21.8 percent in 2000 to 1.3 percent this year. The North Lumpkin precinct in Columbus used an optical scan voting system four years ago.

The Secretary of State's office studied majority-black precincts in Bibb, Chatham, DeKalb, Dougherty, Fulton, Lowndes and Muscogee counties.

"Obviously, I appreciate the fact that there are fewer undervotes. The fact of the matter is, this is a better system, but it's not a fail-safe system," said State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who represents several of the majority-black precincts that were analyzed. He said he's pleased with the apparent accuracy increase, but would also like to see paper ballots eventually added.

Critics complain that the machines do not create a paper record of each vote, saying such records are necessary for recounts and in case any results are questioned. Some fear computer hackers could break into the voting system and tamper with results, despite Cox's assurances that the system cannot be accessed by the Internet.

"We're still left with the question of how do we know they counted up the actual vote," said Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton University who teaches a course on electronic voting. "An absence of evidence of things going wrong is not the same as knowing they didn't."

Appel said Georgia's increased accuracy rates sound consistent with voting on computerized systems in other states. He said he expects electronic voting companies _ including Diebold Election Systems, which makes the Georgia machines _ to eventually offer touch-screen equipment that also offer paper ballots.

Cox has said she is not closed to the idea of a paper ballot, but that the technology currently available is expensive and unwieldy.

Regardless, a majority of Georgia voters have given high marks to the new voting system.

In a University of Georgia poll conducted a year ago, 70 percent of voting-age respondents said they preferred the new computerized system to any other voting method. Twelve percent chose paper ballots and eight percent opted for punchcards.

Support was even higher among the 1,618 Georgia voters in the Nov. 2 elections who participated in an exit poll by The Associated Press. About nine out of 10 voters polled said they were confident that their votes were accurately counted using the touch-screen machines.

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