The New York Times

September 6, 2007



A Chance to Make Votes Count


The United States Congress has a chance to take a big step toward reassuring Americans that the votes they cast on Election Day will not be lost or stolen. The House is considering a bill sponsored by Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, that could come to a vote as soon as today that would make electronic voting both more reliable and less prone to fraud. The bill lacks one important thing: a ban on touch-screen voting machines. But even in its current form, it goes a long way toward fixing a voting system that has been clearly broken for many years. The House should pass it, and the Senate should pass its own bill without delay.


Electronic voting has been an abysmal failure. Computer experts have done study after study showing that electronic voting machines, which are often shoddily made, can easily be hacked. With little effort, vote totals can be changed and elections stolen. In many recent elections, voters have complained of “vote flipping,” in which touch-screen machines took votes cast for one candidate and gave them to an opponent.


When these machines do not produce a paper record of each vote that can be independently counted, voters have to accept the totals they report on faith. That is unacceptable. Testing laboratories, which are supposed to independently verify the integrity of voting machines, are rife with conflicts, since they accept money from the manufacturers.


Mr. Holt’s bill would solve many of these problems. It would require machines used in federal elections to produce “voter-verifiable paper records,” a paper record of every ballot cast that voters could check to ensure that their choices were properly recorded. Those records would then be audited to confirm the accuracy of the machine totals. The bill would also crack down on testing laboratories’ conflicts of interest.


It is unfortunate that the bill does not contain a provision banning the use of touch-screen voting machines. A touch-screen ban would encourage states to use optical scan machines, which rely on paper ballots read by a computer, like a standardized test form. Optical scans are less expensive and less vulnerable to vote theft.


There is still time before the bill becomes law to add a ban on touch-screen voting. If the House fails to do so, the Senate should, and it should fight for it to be in the final bill.


There has been a spirited debate about how quickly to require reforms to be implemented. There have been calls for putting a solution off until 2012. That is too long to wait. Congress should push states to act quickly, while allowing exceptions for states that truly need more time to put a reliable system in place. Many Americans lost faith in their election system after the 2000 election. They have waited long enough for it to be fixed.


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company