Act now to secure votes

September 21, 2004|By William M. Evan

THERE IS increasing concern about the reliability of our voting technology as the presidential election approaches. Congress can do much to alleviate the worry.

The growing popularity of electronic voting, which is projected to be used by about one-third of the voters in November, should be worrisome to our democratic society - in which information is one of the main building blocks of trust - because of the underlying secrecy associated with it. About 40 voting machine manufacturers are permitted to maintain strict proprietary control over the computer codes they use in these systems. How can citizens trust private companies that operate a public process such as an election?

One way is to open to everyone the computer codes used to program these machines so that voting machine manufacturers will be subject to public scrutiny. In addition, programmers would have an opportunity to debug the code, which might result in a decrease of potential fraudulent manipulations of elections.

Stringent standards for certification of electronic voting machines are needed urgently. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelly announced in the spring that more than 14,000 electronic voting machines made by Diebold Election Systems had been banned in the state. He recommended that the state's attorney general look into possible civil and criminal charges against the company because of possible "fraudulent actions."

If it is not feasible to replace a multibillion-dollar voting manufacturing industry with a nonprofit watchdog organization, it's certainly necessary for Congress to intervene and establish a regulatory body for this purpose. Surely the electoral system, on which the lifeblood of our democracy depends, merits government regulation. The CalTech-MIT voting consortium, which was established after the 2000 election to study its irregularities and devise new voting technologies, could be delegated by Congress to perform this regulatory function.

Although Congress took a positive step in 2002 by passing the Help America Vote Act, little progress has been made since. HAVA sets standards that entail many changes to states' existing systems. It required by this year that states offer provisional ballots to voters, verify identities of first-time voters who register by mail, post voting information at polling places and establish complaint procedures for cases in which voters experience problems at the polls.

Although the states are responsible for implementing this reform, the federal government is responsible for providing them with funding and guidance.

At least five bills have been introduced in Congress to amend HAVA by mandating a voter-verifying permanent record. If Congress adopts any of them, all electronic voting machines would have to provide a voter-verified paper trail to guard against computer tampering by creating a hard copy of votes cast that can be compared with election results in the event of a recount.

Bev Harris and David Allen, in their book Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century, underscore the dangers posed by our voting technology system: "Take away trust in the voting system, and all bets are off. This is what the architects of the new, unauditable voting systems have never understood. The votes are the underpinning of the authorization of every law, every government expenditure, every tax, every elected person. But if we don't trust the voting system, we will never accept that those votes represent our voice, and that kind of thing can cause a whole society to quit cooperating."

It is encouraging that, according to The New York Times, both presidential campaigns are enlisting lawyers to monitor the election. Their efforts will be directed at such problems as voter registration and access to the voting booths.

William M. Evan, professor emeritus of sociology and management at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Social Structure and Law.

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