The New York Times

January 16, 2008



A Quick Fix for Electronic Voting


When Americans go to the polls in November, many will likely have to cast their ballots on unreliable paperless electronic voting machines. If the election is close, the country could end up with a rerun of 2000’s bitterly contentious and mistrusted count. In an effort to avoid another such disaster, Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, plans to introduce a bill this week that would help address the weaknesses in electronic voting. Congress should pass it without delay.


The flaws of electronic voting machines have been thoroughly documented by academic studies and by voters’ experiences. The machines are far too vulnerable to hacking that could change the outcomes of elections. They are also so prone to mechanical error and breakdown that there is no way to be sure that the totals they report are correct. In some cases, these machines have been known to “flip” votes — award votes cast for one candidate to an opponent.


The solution is for all votes to be recorded on paper records. Voters can then verify that their choice has been accurately reflected — and the paper record can be used as a backup for the electronic machines. Whenever votes are tallied on electronic machines, there should be an audit of paper records as a check on the electronic results. If the paper totals do not match the electronic tallies, something has clearly gone wrong — and the tally of the paper ballots can be treated as the official one.


As voters have learned about the problems with electronic voting, they have sensibly pressed their representatives to adopt laws requiring voter-verified paper records. Most states, including New York, Ohio and California have now done so. Mr. Holt’s bill would make money available on an expedited basis — in time for this year’s election — for jurisdictions that still have not.


In addition to money for upgrading to paper-based voting, the bill would provide funds to conduct audits of paper records. It rightly prods jurisdictions to adopt optical-scan voting, in which ballots are marked by hand, much like a standardized test, and then fed into a computer for tabulation. Optical scans are the most reliable, efficient and cost-effective technology available. The bill also allows jurisdictions to use the money to switch to simple paper ballots that are counted by hand.


Because the bill is opt-in — it does not force any jurisdiction to make changes — it has not drawn the entrenched opposition from local election officials that mandatory paper-record bills have met. The ultimate solution to the problem of electronic voting is a national law requiring voter-verified paper records, something Congress has been inexcusably slow in adopting. As a temporary measure, however, Mr. Holt’s legislation is a good step forward.


Time to upgrade voting machines before this year’s presidential election is short, but it is not yet too late. Congress should pass the Holt bill quickly. In the meantime, eligible states and localities should prepare to apply for the money and to put in place voting systems that voters can trust.


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