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Better votes, on paper

Robert Steinback   Columnist   Miami Herald   13 April 2005

Sometimes, low-tech is best.

Who wouldn't prefer hand-cranked ice cream to the mass-produced stuff that comes in supermarket cubes?

Every car I've ever owned has had a manual transmission.

As much as I am dismayed by the outsourcing of telephone service jobs, I'd rather talk to a human being in India than a machine programmed to ''understand'' my verbal responses.

Technology is cool, don't get me wrong I rarely use my land-line telephone at home, now that my cellular has been permanently sutured to my belt. I can do research that used to require hours in a library with single mouse click.

But applying technology to a process doesn't always mean progress.

No better example exists than computerized touch-screen voting machines, which haven't made elections foolproof or credible beyond doubt. While certainly superior to the hanging-chad-prone punch cards of the 2000 election, touch-screen machines are costly to operate, ripe for mistakes by untrained operators and poll workers and vulnerable to intrusions by hackers and intrigue by schemers.

Worst of all, computer voting machines deny critics, reporters, attorneys general and historians the chance to recheck results which undermines the confidence any citizen can have in what are billed as free and fair elections.

Studying alternative

Administrators in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where goofed-up elections have now ruined the careers of three county elections supervisors in barely two years, are cautiously opening their eyes to the light studying whether to touch screens for paper ballots.

This hardly represents a regression to the Stone Age. American banks process 233 million checks a day more than twice the 121.5 million votes cast in the 2004 election. The U.S. Postal Service efficiently processes 540 million pieces of mail daily and can still deliver a letter across town overnight.

Nothing is more important, for the world's pre-eminent democracy, than assuring the sanctity of each vote. Why can't we have a single nationwide system, with optically scanned paper ballots as easy to fill out as a Lotto ticket printed locally and sorted by bar coding to custom-fit each of America's 170,000 precincts? The ballots could be counted within a few hours hardly an imposition on the populace if it serves to reaffirm democracy itself.

Best of all, the paper ballots would survive to be counted again, and again if necessary. And to guard against the odd warehouse fire that might use ballots as kindling, the counting machines could generate receipts that could be stored separately for the benefit of posterity.

Thwarting fraud

Switching to optically scanned paper ballots obviously won't end all attempted subterfuge to distort elections but low-tech vote-counting systems make fraud attempts more labor intensive, and thus more readily detected. Paper ballots can be forged or lost, for example, but attempting to swing elections using such methods almost surely requires a team of conspirators, and likely would leave a trail of evidence. With computerized voting machines, a hacked line of code can instantly alter thousands of votes.

We may never find out what Walden O'Dell, CEO of touch-screen voting machine manufacturer Diebold Inc., meant when he told Republicans in a 2003 fund-raising letter that he was ``committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president [Bush] next year.''

We may never learn the truth behind the affidavit of computer programmer Clinton Curtis alleging then-Florida Rep. Tom Feeney now a U.S. congressman asked the software company for which he worked in 2000 to design an undetectable computer program for flipping touch-screen machine votes.

We may never know for sure if Nov. 2 exit polls that projected John Kerry winning several states he ultimately lost were themselves biased or whether they were accurate, exposing tampered election results. The victors, after all, never question the score or the scoring.

But wouldn't it be nice in the future not to have to ask?

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