Don't replace voting system

February 26, 2007|By Donald F. Norris and Paul S. Herrnson

Momentum is developing within the Maryland General Assembly to get rid of the state's perfectly functional touch screen voting system and replace it with an optical scan voting system that uses paper ballots. This proposed change is not only unnecessary, it would have negative consequences that no one, including proponents of paper ballot/optical scan voting systems, will like.

It is fair to say that the touch screen system has performed well. Votes on touch screen machines were recorded and reported accurately in the 2004 and 2006 primary and general elections. No results have been challenged based on the performance of these machines. Problems in recent elections involved human error and electronic poll books, not the touch screen voting system, and the problems were corrected.

Proponents of "opscan" voting systems give two principal reasons for replacing touch screen machines. First, they assert that computer-based systems are inherently susceptible to fraud and attack. Given the right tools, time, and unfettered access to an electronic voting machine, they posit, a knowledgeable person can insert malicious software to produce erroneous results.

It is important to note that this is a hypothetical scenario. The security around the touch screen system in Maryland is designed to prevent such an occurrence, and it can be improved to discover and rectify fraud should an attempt be made.

Second is the dubious claim that voters lack confidence in the touch screen system. Public opinion surveys indicate that Maryland voters like the touch screen system. Surveys conducted last year by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun all found that voters had high levels of confidence in the touch screen system. Moreover, a study conducted at the University of Maryland, College Park that compared the Maryland system with other voting systems found that, in terms of voter trust, overall satisfaction, the need for help, and ability to vote as intended, voters reported that the Maryland system performed better than most others.

Why fix the system if it is not broken? And why fix it if the alternative will present its own range of problems?

Paper is not tamper-proof. Finnish computer programmer Harri Hursti was able to hack into an optical scan system that uses paper ballots. Paper is also notoriously insecure. Opscan systems require local election judges to manage millions of paper ballots on election day, transport them to the local election boards after the election is over, and store them securely. This nation's long and inglorious history of ballot theft suggests that there is plenty of opportunity for mischief.

Opscan voting systems do not prevent errors. Voters are more likely to select the wrong candidate or commit "undervotes" or "overvotes" when voting on paper than when using the state's touch screen system. The evidence further shows that voters who try to change their votes or cast write-in votes also make more errors when using paper. This may be because, unlike touch screen systems, opscan systems have no review screen. And in the event of a controversy, recount discrepancies can occur with the interpretation of paper ballots, as we well know from Florida in 2000 and Washington state in 2004.

At a time when the state faces a budget deficit, we question the wisdom of the General Assembly spending upward of $40 million to replace a voting system that has worked well, that voters like, and in which they have high levels of confidence. Those who are concerned about voting security should instead turn their attention to ensuring that the State Board of Elections significantly expands its current program of parallel testing, whereby election officials cast votes and then check the accuracy of the votes recorded on a sufficient number of randomly selected voting systems to ensure that no foul play has been committed.

There will be costs associated with expanding parallel testing, but they will be a small fraction of the cost of a replacement system.

Professor Donald F. Norris directs the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research and National Center for the Study of Elections at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Professor Paul S. Herrnson directs the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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