Archive for Monday, December 29, 2003

Push-button ballot

Computerized voting may produce quicker or more accurate election results, but certain reservations remain.

December 29, 2003


It's hard to know whether statewide use of touchscreen voting machines would be a step backward or an improvement on the current system.

On one hand, it might eliminate some of the human errors that played a part in the Florida fiasco during the last presidential election or even in Lawrence's most recent City Commission race. But, on the other hand, it seems to open the door to a whole new set of possibilities for computer error or election fraud.

Kansas officials apparently have no choice but to move toward a more computerized voting system. Following the 2000 presidential election, which lingered unresolved for weeks and finally was settled by court decree, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which requires states to replace punch-card and lever voter machines with electronic machines.

Most states are planning to either use touchscreen machines or ask voters to insert their marked paper ballots into optical computer scanners to be recorded. Ohio officials have raised concerns about the touchscreen machines because they think they may be vulnerable to election fraud.

Those machines have been used successfully in Johnson and Lyon counties in Kansas. Officials in Johnson County, which used the touchscreen machines countywide in 2002, say they see no reason to reconsider their use. One key, they said, is that Johnson County results weren't transmitted over computer modems and the machines weren't connected to the Internet -- both circumstances that caused security concerns in other locations.

It all sounds pretty good. Many human errors would be eliminated (assuming voters could figure out the touchscreen), and results would be available much more quickly.

But anyone who works with a computer system is bound to have a few nagging concerns about turning something as important as our local, state and national elections over to computers. Think of all the things that go wrong with computers every day. Programming errors can scramble data, and software problems can shut the system down. Information can be in the computer, but the operator can't access it.

Then there are hackers and people intentionally out to do mischief. If ingenious hackers can break into computers in the Pentagon, why would we think we could guarantee they couldn't get into a computerized voting system?

The move to more computerized voting probably is a good one, but election officials shouldn't just trade one set of problems for another, perhaps even more serious, set. Voting is just too important.

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