Archive for Sunday, August 17, 2003

Tradition vs. technology

Costly federal mandate perplexes county officials

August 17, 2003


Douglas County commissioners are getting set for the Bout of the Ballot Box, a battle they see as an unfair match of tradition vs. technology, ballots vs. bytes, community government vs. federal mandates.

They fear that a loss -- being forced to buy new voting systems by the time new federal election rules take effect in 2006 -- could leave county taxpayers reeling under the effects of a $1 million hit.

And while they're not down for the count, the elected officials can't seem to shake the foggy effects of the Help America Vote Act.

"When the federal government mandates how we vote, with what process we vote and, now, with what machines we vote, it's just getting out of hand," Commissioner Jere McElhaney said. "Somebody's dumb in Washington, that's all I can say."

At issue is a component of the voting act, which Congress passed after the 2000 presidential election that left the nation in limbo for weeks as officials from poll judges in Florida to Supreme Court justices in Washington were left to decipher the meanings behind "hanging chads."

The voting law mandates that, by Jan. 1, 2006, "accessible voting machines" must be available in all polling places, including the 67 in Douglas County. Such machines typically are paperless touch-screen computer systems, equipped to handle the needs of voters with visual, hearing or other physical disabilities.

While the federal government intends to pay for one such machine for each polling site, it leaves open the question of what to do for the rest of the voters. The county's existing systems for counting ballots could be rendered obsolete, or at least unable to match up results with the paperless system.

Million-dollar choice

Buying the high-tech voting booths for use by all county voters probably would cost about $1 million, said Patty Jaimes, county clerk. And it could hatch a whole new set of problems.

"If you go to a touch screen, there isn't a paper trail," said Jaimes, who has been overseeing the county's elections for more than 20 years. "How are you going to recount, if you don't have a piece of paper to look at?"

Concerns about cost, security and necessity have been climbing up the political ladder in recent months, as elected officials face the budgetary -- and logistical -- barriers to getting systems in place on time.

Jaimes is holding out hope that change will come, and for the better.

"A lot of it depends on how the county wants to handle it," she said. "Something could change between now and 2006. I mean, there may be enough pressure put on the federal government for them to change their minds.

"It could be politics, but it could be, 'Let's look at this again and make sure we're doing this correctly.'"

Commissioner Charles Jones, who ran unopposed last year, said it would be "disastrous" to have the county operating with two separate systems for taking votes.

"There's a point at which we're going to have to say no to the federal government," Jones said. "And is this the issue? Do we say to them, 'No, we're not going to have two systems running and we're not going to spend the money to come up with a new system?'

"I have, at this point, no real enthusiasm for bringing in two sets of machines at each polling place. It just doesn't make any sense to me."

Under the current system, voters use a lead pencil to darken a space beside a candidate's name, then have the paper ballot placed in a metal box for transport to the Douglas County Courthouse for counting. A touch-screen system would store each vote electronically, for transmission to a central location.

Fraud fears

Computer scientists from Johns Hopkins and Rice universities recently issued a report criticizing the accuracy and security of 33,000 touch-screen election machines already in use nationwide. Their report said the machines' source code was not secure, and that a lack of physical evidence of votes would make legitimate recounts impossible.

"I think there's a potential for fraud," said Jaimes, who noted the "worm" virus that disabled thousands of computers around the world last week. "I'm sure there are people out there who can handle getting into election equipment on Election Day."

Bob Johnson, commission chairman, understands the dilemma. The touch-screen systems would prevent people from "overvoting" -- the persistent problem of voters casting too many votes for a particular office -- but such accuracy would come at a price.

Without a systemwide upgrade, the very consistency of the election would be at stake.

"I think that increases the likelihood that we'd have errors in our vote counting and maybe even our voting systems," Johnson said. "That's not good. That begins to defeat the whole purpose of what the solution is supposed to be."

The federal government's offer to buy one new machine per polling place also rings hollow, he said. The move wouldn't do anything to help a county government that already struggles to make ends meet.

Next year's county budget already calls for a 7.3 percent jump in the property tax rate, and that doesn't include the escalating land valuations that are making county residents' tax bills rise even faster.

New touch screens for everyone?

"It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I'm not sure that's a wise expenditure of our tax dollars at any time -- but particularly at this time," he said.

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