Every vote counts

December 04, 2005

Americans' electronic election tallies still are not safe or reliable, according to a thorough review by the Government Accountability Office, and won't be in time for the balloting in 2006. The problem: lack of meaningful national standards for how the machines should work and how to independently verify results. The solution: Fully fund and support the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which is assigned to set these standards, and ensure states abide by them.

Maryland, which is doing a lot of testing on the voter side of the equipment, has its set of standards, for example; California another set. North Carolina set its own standard, including a wise requirement that companies submit a copy of the source code that runs the machines so it could be examined - then last week approved machines made by Diebold, which had refused to submit its source code.

This does not build confidence in a system in which tiny pixels on a screen are translated into who runs the country.

All Americans must feel confident that their votes are recorded correctly and remain the same through tallying, transmission and final counting. Voters in some parts of California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Maryland could not feel that way in the 2004 election, the GAO reported. Some ballots had the wrong races on them. Some machines accepted votes after their memory cards were full, so an unknown number of ballots were lost. In Maryland, a computer transmitting vote totals was connected directly to the Internet without a firewall - open season for hackers.

The election commission was created in 2002, along with funding incentives to entice states to buy reliable electronic systems. The states bought the systems, but the commission was slow to start because of funding and staffing issues. It has not updated its vague system standards and ineffective testing requirements, which leaves states to fly blind. This year, it must, at the least, require states to equip their machines with some backup, likely paper, with which single votes and vote totals can be audited.

Most nations do not use private companies to count their national election results; if the United States must, it had better make sure the voting, counting and transmission of poll data are as transparent and auditable - at every point - as possible.

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