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Archive for Sunday, February 11, 2007

Priceless commodity

Paperless voting systems soon may be on their way to the trash bin.

February 11, 2007

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It seems Douglas County was prescient in its decision last year to purchase a voting system that uses paper ballots.

Legislation has been introduced and placed on the fast track in Congress that would make paperless touch-screen voting machines obsolete. The bill would require voting machines to have paper trails that can be used after an election to verify results. The lawmakers who introduced the measure hope to have the new standard in place before the 2008 presidential election.

The return to paper ballots comes in response to voting concerns that began with Florida's "hanging chad" fiasco, which left the results of the 2000 presidential election in limbo for weeks. Various reports also have warned that paperless touch-screen voting is vulnerable to computer-based fraud that would be difficult to detect or prove without a paper backup.

Although some election officials have lauded the convenience and accuracy of touch-screen voting machines, many Americans remain skeptical of a system that included no paper backup.

A Kansas House race in Overland Park last year offered a reminder that every vote counts in a close election. Only last week, John Dennis Kriegshauser, an Overland Park Republican, conceded the November election to incumbent Rep. Gene Rardin, D-Overland Park. His concession came after both a Johnson County district judge and a Kansas House committee confirmed an election result that gave Rardin a two-vote victory. Interestingly, although Johnson County uses touch-screen voting machines at its polling places, it uses paper ballots for advance and provisional voting. The election challenge focused on the validity of a handful of paper provisional ballots cast in the election.

Such a narrow victory highlights the need for voters to have confidence in the way their votes are handled and counted. Computerized touch-screen voting machines may be near perfect, but they are not foolproof. A programming error, a mechanical malfunction or intentional tampering could have a serious impact on the outcome of an election. Internal computer backups used to verify the results also would be vulnerable to glitches. The only hard evidence of a voter's intent is a paper ballot.

Douglas County's new voting system, which uses paper ballots that are reviewed by voters before being fed into electronic counting machines, also isn't perfect. Mistakes have been made and final totals continue to be slow on election night. But voters can be comforted by the fact that, if any mistakes or malfeasance are suspected, the county has paper ballots that can be recounted - by hand, if necessary - to ensure an accurate election result.

It's unfortunate that some election jurisdictions will have to spend additional money on new equipment that includes a paper trail, but Americans' confidence in their voting process is a priceless commodity in our democracy.

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