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Archive for Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Vote of confidence

Voters need to be able to trust that the ballot they are casting will be honestly and accurately counted.

June 2, 2004

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"I like the paper trail."

We're with Douglas County Clerk Patty Jaimes. When it comes to elections, there's nothing like a paper ballot to give credibility to the results. Computers are quick and efficient, but if something goes wrong or questions are raised, it's nice to have the votes down in black and white.

The debate about touchscreen computer voting is raging across the nation as more states consider making the switch from paper ballots. All states are required by federal law to have touchscreen machines at every polling place by 2006 to accommodate voters with disabilities. Many states are considering a broad shift to computer voting, but some are concerned about the integrity of such a system.

As noted in a story in Tuesday's Journal-World, there are two risks associated with touchscreen voting: deliberate manipulation and accidental problems. Both are worrisome. Although election officials say it would be difficult to hack into election systems because they aren't connected to the Internet, those systems still would be vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous software manufacturers or local election officials.

Some observers suggest the opportunity for outright fraud and electronic ballot stuffing are far greater with a touchscreen system. The systems could be monitored, but subtle deceptions could alter the outcome of elections. Perhaps we can trust the validity of computer election results, but without any paper backup, how would we know if everything was on the up and up?

Douglas County, unfortunately, has some experience with the other possible drawback of computer voting: accidental problems. Twice, in recent years, serious errors have occurred in the county's computer counting process. One of those errors actually changed the outcome of the 2003 Lawrence City Commission election. In such cases, the results of the election now can be verified by putting paper ballots through the county's computer counting machine again to obtain an accurate count. Without the paper ballots, there would be nothing but numbers on a computer screen.

American voters already are staying away from the polls in droves largely because they are disenchanted with politics and feel that their votes don't count. Touchscreen voting is likely to increase their skepticism of the voting process. It may be convenient, but it won't work if it doesn't have the public's confidence.

Perhaps election officials can build that trust. One way would be to have a transition period during which touchscreen systems are used but with a paper backup. Such a system would be cumbersome, but if officials are determined to make the switch to computer voting, it might be worth it.

Voters must have confidence in the honesty and integrity of the election system. An election system that could produce undetectable or uncorrectable errors simply isn't acceptable. Voting is just too important.

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