Editorial: E-voting imperils basic right



The Columbia Paper

Thursday, 22 October 2009


WHAT IF YOUR VOTE didn't count? Forget about Afghanistan, it's happened plenty of places in the U.S.--take Florida, for instance. And it could happen right here in Columbia County.


When voters go to the polls Tuesday, November 3, most will still use the same old, bulky, mechanically operated booths with their satisfying metallic rattle that announces another set of votes has been recorded.


But somewhere in each of the 58 polling stations in Columbia County is a new, electronic system, part of which is called a ballot marking device. It allows people with all sorts of disabilities that might prevent them from using the mechanical machines to cast their ballots at a public voting site rather than use a paper ballot or forgo voting altogether.


The availability of ballot marking technology represents real progress, but in the last election only 14 people used the expensive systems. To their great credit, the county election commissioners did not blame that low usage on the machines; instead, they recognized the need to train poll workers and voters how the systems work. Commissioners Virginia Martin, a Democrat, and Don Kline, a Republican, have launched a vigorous outreach effort to familiarize people with disabilities and poll workers with the systems. It may be the most extensive program of its kind in the state.


The county plans to use the new marking device to record the ballots of each voter who uses one of the devices; election officials will count the ballots later by hand. That's a good use of the technology. But ballot marking is only half of what the devices can do. They also offer a computer-driven "optical scan" of the marked ballots--a form of electronic voting, where the system records the votes. That's where the county has drawn the line.


Ms. Martin has recently testified before state lawmakers, explaining to them that this type of computer voting is so deeply flawed that it's doubtful elections officials would ever know whether votes have been properly tabulated or even recorded at all.


On election night, local officials in this county will open the back of each mechanical voting machine and call out the number of votes cast at each lever. If questions come up later, the numbers are right there to review. But where electronic systems are used, there is no way for officials to "open" the computers and check for meltdowns or fraud, because the makers of the computer voting software keep their programs a secret. In other words, only the manufacturer has a realistic chance of knowing whether something has gone awry, and the company has no incentive to admit that its devices screwed up. And experts say even the company might not be able to detect a problem.


Electronically marked ballots are a boon to those who might otherwise face huge barriers when it comes to exercising their right to vote. But counting any votes electronically with currently available technology is a prescription for gutting the democratic process. And if our votes don't count, then nothing else we do as citizens matters.


Ms. Martin and Mr. Kline have been consistent and vocal opponents of federal and now state initiatives to prevent voters from using proven mechanical voting machines. They have raised their voices against the unreliable electronic systems that benefit nobody but the companies that make the devices and, possibly, those who seek to manipulate the outcome of elections.


The stakes are high. Ms. Martin said this week she would refuse to certify any election here that is counted by a computer and not followed with an expensive post-election audit thorough enough to detect problems. It could come to just such a showdown if the state insists that all municipalities count votes electronically.


This isn't a partisan issue. Republicans, Democrats, independents and minor party voters all have a stake in knowing their votes have been counted. But there is big money in the changeover to electronic voting systems, and politicians have shown a surprising reluctance to admit that the law requiring them is a grave mistake.


The county election commissioners may well become embroiled in legal challenges because of their principled defiance of what amounts to an assault on a basic American right. Fighting any such challenge in court could prove costly for taxpayers.


But the price we'll pay if our votes don't count will be much, much higher.


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