Archive for Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Verifiable votes

Faith in their election system is essential to Americans’ faith in their government.

October 31, 2006

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There is nothing more important to the survival of our democratic republic than reliable, verifiable election results.

Think about it. Even though we may not always agree with the decisions and actions of our elected officials, we accede to their leadership because we believe they are our duly elected representatives. We may not personally have voted for them, but a majority of voters did, and, even if they make us angry, we accept their authority to rule.

Now, what if, after the ballots are counted and the election results are announced, the electorate is unwilling to accept the result? What if a large minority or even a majority is convinced that ballots were egregiously mishandled or even intentionally tampered with? Perhaps for a few elections, Americans would accept the results anyway, but over a period of years, the loss of trust in elections could open the door to all manner of discontent and perhaps even revolt.

That's why so many people are concerned about the move to electronic voting in America. In an effort to streamline voting, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act and approved $3.8 billion to let states purchase new voting equipment.

The assumption seemed to be, after the hanging-chad debacle in Florida, that turning elections over to more sophisticated machinery would eliminate the problems caused by human error. The problem is that machines open the door to a whole range of errors or fraud that could undermine voter confidence.

A single human error in a computerized voting system could cause thousands of votes to be miscounted. A single successful hacker could sway a whole election. And without any paper backup, as is the case with the touch-screen voting systems in use in many states, there will be no paper trail to confirm or correct the results. The scanning system that will be in use in Douglas County is favored by many poll watchdogs because it uses paper ballots that can be recounted in case of a dispute.

It's no mystery why voters have little faith in votes that never touch human hands. Just think about all the computerized phone systems that supposedly are reaching out to help customers these days. If you want to make sure an important piece of business is taken care of, would you rather punch it into a computer or talk to a real person?

Computerized voting has the advantage of making it easier for some people with disabilities to mark ballots unassisted. It also can produce faster results on election night. But is it more important to get the results fast or get them right? If getting it right is the primary goal, maybe we'd be better off going back to marking ballots with a No. 2 pencil and spending the $3.8 billion to hire enough poll workers to manually count the ballots in a timely fashion.

Voting is the bedrock of our democratic system. Elections are the way in which the governed give their consent. If Americans lose faith in their election system, losing faith in their government won't be far behind.

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