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Clearly, we still have work to do in fixing our elections process

 By Asheville Citizen-Times
Jan. 11, 2005

It's been said that generals are always prepared to fight the last war. Even a casual glance at history proves the folly of this approach. Armies change, weapons change and tactics change at a rapid pace, so it's best to prepare for what's ahead, not for what's behind.

In many ways, that military lesson can now be applied to elections. As a nation we seem to have fallen into a trap of re-fighting elections and associated election problems without fixing those problems in time for the next election.

From sea to shining sea, the 2004 election would seem to be a textbook example of this. There's a disputed gubernatorial race in Washington in the hands of lawyers, there's a slew of problems yet to be addressed in the Ohio presidential race and right here at home we have Council of State elections (agriculture commissioner, superintendent of schools) circling the judicial drain.

These issues all stem from the same problem: Making sure the votes count and all the votes are counted.

Considering we're almost 230 years into this democracy, you'd think we would have solved that equation by now. Instead, some of the solutions that have been implemented appear to be taking us the other way, at least in regard to whether the public trusts in the system.

Now, voter problems have been around for years. Dead people were swing voters in many elections, and it was not uncommon within memory in areas of Western North Carolina for voters to show up only to learn they'd already (been) voted (for).

Thankfully such tales of ballot-box stuffing are going the way of the dodo. Unfortunately, voter complaints have gone from knowing for sure they'd been disenfranchised to not knowing for sure that their vote counted.

The new problems center on electronic voting machines sorely lacking in paper trails, court challenges to provisional votes or whether "X'' vote counts if cast in "Y'' precinct and an appalling lack of impartiality governing campaign oversight in some states.

The worries about voting were summed up by Guyene Florence of Asheville, who told a special legislative committee last week, "With the high-tech machines they have today, I just think it's unfortunate that citizens can't be comfortable that their vote counts. But I believe that if people take the time to vote, then their vote should count."

The committee gathered largely in response to the voting problems affecting the Agriculture race, notably the 4,438 votes lost in Carteret County when a voting machine malfunctioned.

The vice chairman of the Buncombe County Republican Party, George Keller, said the local GOP backs retrofitting machines to allow voters to see a paper record of their vote before exiting polls. Yes, it would cost money. But yes, it would also make sense.

Chuck Herrin, who tests corporate computer systems by breaking into them in his job as a "certified ethical hacker,'' went further, saying hand-counted paper ballots are the only way to go. Herrin said, "I will never trust systems with computers because I break into computers for a living."

If nothing else, those computers shouldn't be concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of private corporations.

A change on the conflict-of-interest front may be on the way. Sen. Frank Lautenberg is proposing the Federal Election Integrity Act of 2005, which would bar top state elections officials from campaigning for federal candidates. That would end situations like in Ohio last fall, where the co- chair of the president's re-election campaign was Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. For the record, we believe the president legitimately won re-election. Also for the record, we noticed Blackwell exhibiting nothing but contempt for democracy in many of his actions before and after the votes were cast. Top campaign officials, be they Democratic, Republican, Libertarian or Martian - don't need to be in charge of elections. Period.

As for the final issue, that of votes being challenged after they're cast, the rules have to be very clear before a voter chooses to mail in a ballot, vote early or engage in other options now available. Such questions have to be answered before an election, not decided by lawyers and judges afterward.

Some of these problems are complex. The goal - a goal that must be met - isn't.

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