Voters need paper trail

April 04, 2004

THOSE FANCY electronic voting machines that made their statewide debut in last month's primary may be an improvement on the county-by-county hodgepodge of balloting devices used in the past. But there's no way to build voter confidence in their accuracy without providing back-up records on paper.

The Maryland Senate voted unanimously last week to upgrade the state's 16,000 touch-screen voting machines in time for this fall's presidential election to allow voters to double-check their choices on a printout. The House of Delegates should embrace that proposal.

An alternative House plan to wait until the 2006 elections creates a needless and potentially costly delay.

Maryland last year plunged hastily into its $55 million purchase of these machines, urged on by the promise of federal financing and undeterred by warnings from computer geeks that electronic voting is particularly vulnerable to mischief.

The machines' debut on primary day was marked by no more than the usual number of polling place snafus and foul-ups. But it's impossible to know for sure that each of the ballots was recorded as the voters intended because there is no way to check.

For example, the software could be altered -- accidentally or on purpose -- to record only 19 of every 20 votes cast for a particular candidate.

In a close contest, that 5 percent could make all the difference.

And the candidate who lost those votes would never know they were missing. Totals from the machines can be retabulated, but they would simply come up with the same numbers. That's not the same as an independent recount.

Reluctance to quickly add paper records against which voters could check to make sure their ballots are recorded properly appears to stem largely from concerns about the cost.

But if the state moves quickly, there is the prospect that it can prevail upon the manufacturer to provide the upgrades free, or at least at a discount, as an incentive to retain the state contract.

Even if it can't, ballot security is no place to economize. In these times of such bitter partisan divides, our democracy relies more heavily than ever on the confidence of the governed that razor-thin election margins are determined fair and square.

No matter what it costs to ensure that, we can't afford to wait.

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