Voting system still needs fixing

November 28, 2006|By Ray Martinez III and Avi Rubin

After another general election in which technical and human errors at polling places affected the voting process for many Americans, it is clear that a renewed focus on improving the mechanics of our great democracy is in order.

A national voter hotline received more than 40,000 calls, with registration and machine-related problems ranking among the top concerns.

In Denver, the intermittent collapse of new technology designed to verify the registration status of voters caused routine waits of more than two hours and the disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters.

In Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, a number of local jurisdictions encountered problems with the opening of polling places, resulting in the need for judicial intervention to extend voting hours.

Although significant efforts have been made in the last several years to improve our elections, serious questions remain.

The 2002 federal Help America Vote Act was supposed to be the answer. In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed Help America Vote to modernize the process and provide much-needed federal funds to state and local governments.

At least one recent national exit poll showed high voter confidence in the accuracy of election results, and officials should be praised for the improvements they have made in so short a time. But as the evidence suggests, the difficulties that continue to plague the process of election administration require our immediate attention.

Four important steps should be taken.

First, the incoming 110th Congress should place meaningful election reform on its agenda. Although the decentralized nature of our election system remains one of its abiding strengths, Congress should consider certain procedural improvements to build upon the progress already made. For example, establishing uniform data transfer standards - similar to what has been accomplished in the health care industry over the last several years - could serve to better protect voting rights by making it easier for states to exchange voter eligibility or registration information.

Second, the time has come for Congress to fully fund the Help America Vote Act. Unanticipated costs associated with implementing this important law have placed a severe financial burden upon state and local jurisdictions. For example, maintenance and troubleshooting costs associated with electronic voting systems have come at a steep price - a cost often paid for by state and local tax dollars, with no help from the federal government.

Third, with some congressional races being decided by razor-thin margins, the fact remains that many electronic systems in use throughout the country provide no voter verification of the recording of votes and no independent audit or recount capabilities. Just ask the voters in Sarasota County, Fla., who continue to deal with the fallout of a congressional race decided by 369 votes in which the losing candidate alleges that malfunctioning touch-screen voting machines led to some 18,000 potentially lost votes. Regardless of the outcome of this particular race, it is simply no longer acceptable that the fate of our democracy rests, with each passing election cycle, on electronic voting machines that provide no means to independently verify voter intent.

Despite the best efforts of most local election officials to appropriately program and secure these machines, problems persist. In order to finally resolve the lingering doubts surrounding the use of certain electronic voting machines, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission should amend its recently adopted national voting system standards to require - as a mandatory condition of federal voting system certification - that all electronic systems produce independent verification of ballots cast and counted. And, it should do so in time for the 2008 election cycle. Only then can we have true reliability and accuracy.

Finally, election officials should commit themselves to improving their collection of data and to undertaking rigorous, consistent and transparent audits after every election. Important lessons have been learned from jurisdictions that have recently invited an independent review of their policies and procedures. The Election Assistance Commission should encourage more jurisdictions to do the same. Post-election independent audits - already performed by a handful of jurisdictions - serve to further improve the public confidence of election outcomes.

These four steps are important, but much more work remains to be done. Election 2006 has helped to point the way, but the insights are only useful if we commit ourselves to act on them.

Ray Martinez III, former vice chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, is a policy adviser to the Pew Center on the States. His e-mail is www.martinezconsultinggroup.com. Avi Rubin is a computer science professor at the Johns Hopkins University and author of "Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting." His e-mail is rubin@jhu.edu.

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