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Orlando Sentinel, FLORIDA

 

EDITORIAL

 

Drop touch-screens

Our position: It's time to pull the plug on the failed experiment of electronic voting.

 

December 24, 2006

 

Nothing is more sacred or vital to the survival of democracy than the ability to cast a vote with the confidence that vote will be counted accurately.

 

And yet the very foundation of this principle was shaken by the fiasco in Sarasota County on Nov. 7, when ATM-styled touch-screen machines showed more than 18,000 voters made no choice in one of the most hotly contested congressional races in the country. After a ridiculous "recount" in name only, the official returns show that Republican Vern Buchanan defeated Democrat Christine Jennings in District 13 by 369 votes out of 238,249 counted.

 

But that result isn't worth the paper the electronic ballots were not printed on. Without a paper trail to independently validate the electronic vote, the mandatory recount amounted to hitting the rewind button and replaying the machines' sad song.

 

Ms. Jennings is suing to challenge the election. Congress should do more than pay close attention to the case; it ought to mount its own investigation. The most fair resolution may well be holding a new election.

 

Whatever happens in the race between Ms. Jennings and Mr. Buchanan, one thing is clear: The experiment with touch-screen voting is a failure. Florida and other states should scrap touch-screens and use the pen-and-paper ballots of the optical-scan method, allowing a verifiable, independent recount.

 

Problems with touch-screens on Nov. 7 were widespread. Common Cause of Florida found that in Charlotte, Lee and Sumter counties, more than 40,000 voters seemed not to have chosen a candidate in the attorney general's race. Since Republican Bill McCollum defeated Democrat Skip Campbell by at least 250,000 votes, no one is screaming about that one.

 

It is all but certain that the Democrat-controlled Congress will address this issue. The most likely proposal will be to require that touch-screen systems print a paper receipt that would be verified by the voter and saved in case a recount were needed later.

 

While providing a paper trail is obviously preferable to the electronic-voodoo system that exists today, this would be no panacea. In fact, Florida has yet to certify a touch-screen system that provides a paper trail, so officials will be scrambling to come up with one should Congress require it.

 

And paper-trail systems present other problems. Printers can jam and run out of paper. There is ample evidence that today's touch-screen machines are too complicated for volunteer poll workers to handle, and adding a printer would only make that worse.

 

The best voting system is already in use in 62 Florida counties, including Orange: the optical-scan system. Voters mark choices with a pen, like a multiple-choice test. When a voter is finished, the ballot is run through a scanning machine that tabulates the vote. If a voter makes a mistake, the machine can reject the ballot and give the voter another chance to get it right.

 

And, most important, that ballot is saved so that it can be recounted by hand if a close election demands it.

 

Touch-screen supporters will argue the system is easier for the disabled to use. They also argue it saves on paper and printing costs. Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles will have to print more than 200 ballot versions in English and Spanish for all the races in the 2008 elections.

 

One touch-screen machine could be reserved for the disabled at each polling place. And saving money is the last reason to use these flawed touch-screen machines. If we are going to spend money on anything, it should be on elections.

 

Generations of soldiers have paid a much higher price in securing the right to vote from themselves and others, fighting and dying in places like Lexington and Concord to Kabul and Baghdad.

 

Let's remember that the hard-fought right to vote isn't worth much without the confidence the votes will count.

 

Copyright 2006, Orlando Sentinel