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Voting and Paper

March 16, 2004

A public radio commentary

With the U.S. primary season nearly over, and the general election ahead, it's time to focus on how we vote. Wanting no repeat of the Florida voting fiasco of the 2000 Presidential Election, many states now use electronic voting - just touching a computer screen casts a vote. I'm wary, though, that this new technology may simply sweep any problems we've had into an electronic void without solving them.

We are tossing out the Votomatic Ballot Tally System, invented in 1963. With these machiens citizens punched holes in special index cards to cast votes, which could then be counted quickly by a computer. Most importantly, though, the Votomatic System left an audit trail - that is, actual ballots that can be recounted by machine, or if desired by hand. As we learned in Florida in 2000 what exactly constitutes a valid vote isn't clear: Does the card need to be punched completely, or need a voter only indent the card?

To avoid making these decisions, state officials are turning toward electronic voting. They hype electronic voting emphasizing how it can help voters: For example, voters often invalidate their punch card ballots by choosing too many candidates, an electronic system can alert a voter about an improper ballot.

In spite of many advantages, I'm leery of electronic voting. I've written many computer programs in my life and have learned that no software is foolproof. And I worry about security: Recently someone stole the Diebold company's voting machine software, displaying it on a web site, giving hackers a blueprint for attacking the machines.

Perhaps all this can be solved giving us nice and clean electronic balloting: Just press a button on a touch screen and the machine records your vote. Or does it?

So far, electronic voting machines have actually subtracted votes instead of adding them. And in Florida electronic voting machines found that 137 people who'd showed up and gone into the booth had no recorded votes. Did these people just choose not to vote once they got in the booth, or did the machines fail? We'll never know because electronic voting machine don't leave an audit trail.

So, the key to reliable electronic voting is old-fashioned: It's paper. The machine should record the vote electronically, but also spit out a small card with the vote printed on it. A card that can be recounted if necessary. While it seems a simple solution, many voting machine companies oppose it. It's too complicated, expensive and complex they say, arguing that it's inefficient.

When we heard cries like this - that we need electronic voting because it is clean, neat, and efficient - we should remember that democracy is often a very messy thing. In fact, there's a name for a society with efficient and time-saving voting procedures, it's called a dictatorship!

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises