The New York Times

February 9, 2007



Making Democracy Credible


Time is growing short to head off more embarrassing voting machine scandals. The presidential election looms, yet nearly half of the states offer no reassuring paper trail so voters who use electronic voting machines can check that their ballot choices are accurately recorded.


With a proper sense of urgency, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who leads the Senate committee in charge of elections, is asking all of the right questions about voting technology. This week, she ordered an investigation of the case of as many as 18,000 electronic votes that turned up missing in a tight Congressional race in Florida last November.


Senator Feinstein called on the Government Accountability Office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct “top to bottom” federal investigations of the machines used in Sarasota County, where the 18,000 votes may have disappeared. Florida is now moving to toss out electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper trail. But this is no comfort to Christine Jennings, the Democrat in the 13th Congressional District race, which includes Sarasota County. She lost by 369 votes and is now in court trying to find out what went wrong in the election.


Ms. Jennings is right to be skeptical about the election results. In Sarasota County, her strongest county, there were “undervotes” — ballots that did not record a vote in her race — on 14.9 percent of the ballots, five times the undervoting rate on absentee ballots in the same election. With no paper backup, the true touch-screen history is lost in the ether. So far, Florida courts have denied Ms. Jennings’s request to have experts examine the “black box” heart of the matter: the computer software code embedded in the suspect machines.


It is good news that Ms. Feinstein has called for the federal investigations — and that she is pushing a bill to require paper trails nationally. As long as there are no paper records, and voting machine manufacturers continue to insist that the software that runs the machines is a “trade secret,” voters cannot be expected to trust that votes are being counted correctly. The leadership in Congress needs to focus on making sure that Ms. Feinstein’s paper-trail bill becomes law, along with a companion House measure from Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey.


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company