Not all voting for new technology
June 1, 2004
By John McCormick
Tribune Staff Reporter
RAVENNA, Ohio Meetings of the Portage County Board of Elections rarely attract a crowd.
But when the board met last week to talk about how voters would cast ballots in November, so many people showed up that the session was moved to a larger roomone cluttered with storage boxes, clipboards and floor-to-ceiling stacks of collapsible polling booths.
Armed with reports from computer scientists and news accounts of problems involving touch-screen voting, nearly two dozen area residents turned out to lobby against the new technology. The board voted 4-0 to put off the purchase.
At the center of the current debate is an effort pushed by computer scientists, politicians and grass-roots activists to require manufacturers of electronic voting machines to equip them with printers to generate a voter-verified paper trail.
The paper records, either in a form resembling a cash register tape or an actual printed ballot, allows voters to verify their choices while providing documentation for recounts which some say is necessary because the technology is still far too vulnerable to fraud or malfunction.
Election officials say one thing is certain many more will be watching them than in November 2000.
"While we put that one under a microscope, this one is going to be under a million-power microscope," said Doug Lewis, director of the Houston-based Election Center, a non-partisan group that trains local election officials.
Sen. John Kerry's campaign, for example, is already putting a team of election lawyers in place to examine jurisdictions where problems may arise.
A matter of trust
Confusion at the local level is partly the result of a lack of national standards. Federal election officials have their own concerns about the potential for falsely programmed machines or less sinister glitches.
"If people don't trust it, it's worthless," said DeForest Soaries Jr., a former New Jersey secretary of state and chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "If voting is not credible, then America has a deeper problem than it ever has had."
Manufacturers of electronic voting machines say concerns about their equipment have been mostly theoretical or simple computer malfunctions not vote tampering.
But skeptics point to recent election glitches to make their case, including California's March 2 primary, when machines malfunctioned in more than half the precincts in San Diego County. That and other problems prompted California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to ban the use of more than 14,000 electronic voting machines because of concerns about security and reliability.
Some resist technology
Election workers acknowledge that voting at least since the days of public town hall meetings has never been an exact science.
"`God, please let the winners win by wide margins' is the standard prayer for election officials," joked Lewis of the Election Center.
Just as with consumers who buy the first plasma televisions or DVD burners, the "early adopters" of election technology often have paid more for less refined equipment.
"This is a classic problem with rushing to get the newest technology without taking the time to really understand the technology," said Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor who has consulted nationally on voting machine technology.
"Elections are important enough that we should view technological change in elections with extreme suspicion," he added.