Why Florida Can Happen Again

After the 2000 Presidential election fiasco in Florida seared images of hanging chads into the national psyche, both triumphant Republicans and still-sore Democrats agreed on one thing: America's election machinery needed an urgent overhaul. So where are the vaunted reforms as the 2004 election draws nigh? A few are in place, but in general the nation is nowhere near the goal of a more modern and secure form of balloting. "Millions of voters will still be voting on disenfranchising systems, mostly in poor districts," says Walden "Wally" O'Dell, chairman and CEO of Diebold Inc. (DBD), a maker of electronic voting machines.

The problems started early in 2001. Congress dragged its feet in passing the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, which dangled $3.86 billion in front of states to upgrade their voting equipment, streamline voting rolls, and improve training. HAVA also established the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to set standards and shepherd states through the process of overhauling their systems. The catch: As of late May, only $670 million had been made available.

Same Old Clunkers

So as voters trudge to the polls on Nov.2, attempts to clean up voting rolls will remain unresolved, and snafus with balky equipment will still be widespread. While military ballots and voting rolls got plenty of airtime in the aftermath of the last election, the iconic image of Florida was the hanging chad, symbol of the damage wrought by punch cards. HAVA prodded states to junk outdated machines, and some states such as California, Florida, Georgia, and Maryland have moved rapidly. Still, they are the exceptions. Incredible-But-True-Dept.: This year about three-fourths of voters will cast ballots on the same type of machines they used four years ago.

A big part of that lag is inertia at the federal level. Another problem can be traced to the growing controversy over touch-screen machines, once seen as the ideal vehicle for a chad-free future. Ironically, it's the very paperlessness of those machines that has come under attack. Critics -- mostly liberal activists and computer scientists -- charge that direct recording electronic (DRE) systems are inherently insecure and provide no acceptable method of verifying that the machines have done their job correctly. "In a close election, you would have to take the computer's word for it," says Aviel D. Rubin, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University.

Some of the hoopla surrounding DREs seems overwrought. There is, after all, no concrete example of a security lapse occurring with e-voting. Though that's not to say DREs have been trouble-free. California's Secretary of State has banned the use of more than 14,000 DREs this November, accusing Diebold -- one of the biggest players in the e-voting business -- of using software that was not approved by state or national authorities. Diebold denies the allegation.

What can get lost in the controversy over going electronic is the fact that punch cards have the highest error rate. A study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley in 2001 found that 2% to 3% of hand-punched ballots could not be tabulated, vs. less than 1% for electronic systems. The unreliability of punch cards is especially bad news for poor and minority voters, who are most apt to live in jurisdictions that use old machines.

Clearly, America's problem-ridden voting system cannot be rewired in time for the 2004 election. But by the midterm elections of 2006, there will be no excuses. Congress would be well advised to give the EAC the money it needs to test technologies, ensure the security of new systems, and help make certain that overseas ballots are delivered in time to be tallied -- especially those of soldiers, who sorely deserve to be heard. Only then can the millions of votes lost because of inadequate machinery, unreliable voting rolls, and absentee-ballot delays be counted. Only then can America put behind it a national embarrassment.

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