Archive for Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Electronic voting needs backup

July 28, 2004


You pause after pumping gas and wait for the thin, shiny paper to come chugging out of the gasoline bay, printed confirmation that fueling up the car really did cost that much.

You scan the long supermarket receipt as you leave the store, just in case the flustered woman at the cash register overcharged you again.

You file away credit card receipts, canceled checks, computer printouts from online purchases, and all the other slips of paper that mark the transactions of modern life.

Then you step into an electronic voting booth to exercise the most powerful act of citizenship, choosing the leaders who will tax you, serve you, regulate you, maybe send you to war, and there's no written proof of how you voted.

This does not make sense, especially with the memory of the deeply flawed election of 2000 so raw. As many as one-third of Americans will be voting electronically this November, up from 12 percent in 2000. And now we have documented evidence that questions the security and reliability of electronic voting machines. So voters should demand far more accountability and transparency than they have.

As we know in our private lives, even the most trustworthy computer system needs backup. Any transaction in cyberspace must have a foot on the ground.

Yet legislation to require a paper trail languishes in a Congress that won't even meet in session again until September. As the New York Times noted in its excellent series of editorials this year on how to make votes count, gamblers in Las Vegas have more protections against fraud, security risks, and conflicts of interest than do voters across the country.

"If election officials want to convince voters that electronic voting can be trusted, they should be willing to make it at least as secure as slot machines," the paper observed.

Maybe that's why Nevada is leading the nation when it comes to ensuring voting integrity. It knows it can't afford to have customers mistrust its product, be it blackjack or ballots.

Nevada will be the only state to have a paper-trail system in place by November, to guarantee that all votes will be counted correctly. One of the reform bills stuck in Congress is sponsored by Nevada's two U.S. senators; it would mandate that voters nationwide will be allowed to inspect a printout of their ballots before votes are actually cast. In the House, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., has sponsored similar legislation, which also is going nowhere.

Led by former presidential aspirant Howard Dean, liberal groups in 19 states rallied earlier this month to demand a paper trail, reflecting the residual unease of many Democrats over the recount dispute in Florida in 2000. But to label this movement simply a manifestation of left-wing paranoia -- as some Republicans have done -- overlooks a few facts.

Such as: The lead author of the Senate bill, John Ensign of Nevada, is a Republican.

And Ensign's bill found support among the constituents of his Senate colleague and fellow Republican Don Nickles. It's hardly a scientific survey, but calls to Nickles' office last week unanimously favored mandating the paper trail. He's from Oklahoma, a long way from Vermont.

The pragmatists out there say that requiring an overhaul of millions of electronic voting machines by November will paralyze the system, damaging its integrity far more than a computer glitch here and there. With all the dilly-dallying, unfortunately, they may be right.

But that shouldn't stop election officials across the country from taking other steps to guarantee that no one tampers with or manipulates the machines; that they are randomly tested before and during Election Day by independent security consultants; that poll workers are well-trained and voters have the option to go paper if they wish.

California is requiring that all electronic machines bought after this November be equipped with paper receipts, while Ohio wants a paper trail in place by November 2006. Both states, incidentally, have Republican governors.

"We must uphold the sanctity of our vote by making sure there is an accurate way to confirm and recount votes," Ensign said on the Senate floor in May. If Congress won't do it, then let states take the lead, as they often have in the long and contested history of securing voting rights for all Americans. The struggle never ends, does it?

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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