A `trust us' system for vote count won't do

Plugged In

December 28, 2006|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

As 2007 rolls in, millions of Americans will have to make what looks like a momentous technical decision - should they upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Windows, stay put, or even switch to a Mac? Meanwhile, their legislators and election boards will be pondering a far more important decision: Do we want Microsoft Windows - or any operating system - running our elections?

Maryland will be Ground Zero in this debate. We made headlines by committing $106 million to a voting system based on thousands of Diebold touch-screen electronic terminals. They run a stripped down version of Windows, but it wouldn't matter if they ran Linux or Panther or some other system. Computers just shouldn't be responsible for recording and counting our votes without a verifiable backup.

Fortunately, national sentiment is turning in the right direction. And the Maryland General Assembly seems amenable to a change this session.

But having blown the call once, let's make sure the system we buy now is as simple, accurate and secure as we can make it - without breaking the bank.

My nominee: paper ballots read by optical scanners. It's a low-tech solution, but one that voters here and in other states used happily for many years.

True, we'll have to junk most of the equipment we have now. But we'd still be able to use several hundred electronic terminals where they'll do the most good.

Maryland and other states bought into these slick but unverifiable systems after the 2000 presidential election fiasco. Computer security experts and some election activists immediately raised an alarm, but for years, state election officials branded them as kooks and troublemakers.

Years of well-documented problems in California, Ohio, Georgia and other venues have vindicated the critics.

As Sun reporter Melissa Harris noted in Sunday's paper, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently concluded that electronic voting without a paper trail or some other validation system outside a machine's software is unacceptable.

Why? It's no different than having election officials take boxes full of paper ballots into a back room where nobody's allowed to watch the count and telling the voters, "Trust us."

Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission - also formed in the wake of the 2000 election - has endorsed the need for paper trails or other independent verification. It said Maryland's system could be grandfathered - after all Maryland bought the Diebold terminals in good faith and spent a lot of money on them. But I can't see any reason to keep a flawed system.

Assuming we want a paper trail, we have a couple of choices. One is to use touch-screen terminals (perhaps even the ones we have) to generate a paper ballot, or at least a printed record that voters can verify and which serves as an alternative to the electronic count in case of disputes.

This approach has one strength. The vote generator - the gadget the voter puts his hands on - is a touch-screen terminal. As unreliable and unsecure as they may be, voters like them and understand them.

The problem is the pesky printers we'd have to hook up to those terminals. Right now, there aren't many available, and most are untested. Even if they were on the market, why add one potentially unreliable piece of technology to another?

In last May's primary election in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, a study showed that 10 percent of the printer-generated paper ballots were "destroyed, blank, illegible, missing, taped together or otherwise compromised."

And what happens with even simpler problems, such as running out of ink or paper?

We had a perfectly good system before, and it's time to return. Scanned paper ballots have been around for decades. The machines that read them are hardly exotic technology - studies show they're more reliable than hand counting (although that's certainly an option if they break down).

Instead of thousands of electronic terminals - each one a potential point of failure - a paper system requires one or two scanners per polling place. If one breaks down, you can store the ballots in a lockbox until a new one arrives.

Voters mark their ballots on cheap, plentiful stackable tables with sides that pop up for privacy. That means no lines.

But election administrators hate the notion of printing and storing paper ballots ahead of time - then getting them to the right polls on election day. Every official I've talked to says this is a logistical nightmare. Thanks to overlapping boundaries for local, state and congressional offices, some jurisdictions require dozens of different ballots.

For scanning - the best way to count them - ballots have to be printed on heavy, expensive paper, with special ink. Then they have to be kept in secure warehouses, and trucked to the polls on election day.

That costs lots of money - and we have to pay it upfront every time we have an election.

My response: So what? This is the cost of democracy.

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