Next time, voting via retina scan?

States search for new voting systems, from smart cards to ATM-like machines - but cost is a concern.

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People at Hart InterCivic were nervous. The Texas-based company had chosen election day for a pilot test of its voting equipment - a newfangled machine its designers describe as "a Palm Pilot on steroids."

Would it work? And would citizens, long accustomed to pulling a lever or punching a ballot, accept voting via computer screen?

It now seems these worries were all in vain. The perils of paper balloting, made clear after more than a month of nitpicking over chads and dimples in Florida, is prompting election officials across the US to take a hard look at their generations-old voting machinery - and begin laying multimillion-dollar plans to update it.

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"There's a real sense of urgency," says Bill Stotesbery of Hart, whose staff has been fielding calls from municipalities nationwide. "We never could have anticipated the response we're getting."

Much more is at stake than a boom for the voting-gizmo industry. As municipalities begin to rethink how America votes, they are faced with a baffling array of options that are likely to determine the accuracy of election counts for generations to come.

Choices include everything from smart cards with encrypted signatures to proof-of-identity machines that can scan a voter's retina. While states and cities haven't decided yet which technology is best for them, they have begun pulling money together.

* Secretaries of state in Georgia and Kentucky are planning to spend between $100 million and $200 million each to modernize voting systems. Georgia wants to establish an electronic network connecting voting places and installing them with touch-screen machines.

* Connecticut lawmakers are proposing that $11.3 million be used to replace the state's 3,225 mechanical voting machines with touch-screen machines.

* In California, the secretary of state is proposing a $230 million plan to buy electronic voting equipment. A lawmaker, meanwhile, is working on a bill that would make the state the first in the country to implement online voting.

"Everybody is kind of in a tizzy right now," says Marti Beair, handling communications for Hart. "Nobody wants to be the next Palm Beach County.... In the past, updating voting equipment was always a cost issue for cities. Roads took priority, pot holes, parks. But now they are realizing this is hugely important."

An engineering challenge

But presidents at two prestigious technical universities are hoping municipalities can wait until they complete a thorough study of the problem.

Last week, Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena announced that they had received a $250,000 grant from the Carnegie Corp. to spend six months evaluating voting technology.

"To a large extent, the problem that the country has faced these past few weeks has a technological solution," said Mr. Vest. "We can send a man to the moon, put a reliable ATM on every street corner in America. We have no excuse for not having a reliable, affordable, easy-to-use voting system."

Of course, even computers are not fail-safe, experts warn. Some of the more high-tech systems had minor snafus this past election - and the more complex a system is, the more potential for problems.

"An electronic system is inherently corruptible," says Peter Neumann, a computer scientist at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., who favors hand counting all ballots. "It's a disaster waiting to happen."

Nevertheless, many officials are looking to bring in high-tech systems.

In New England, where tradition dies hard, officials are antsy about some of the ancient machines still in use. Bostonians, for instance, vote for president on the same machines used to elect Woodrow Wilson.

But now the lever machine - one of the first voting machines ever made - is on its way out, under a plan by Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin.

Three years ago, Secretary Galvin spent $2 million getting rid of the Florida-type punch cards, after a hand recount overturned a 1996 congressional race. New Hampshire, the only other state to ban punch cards, did so in 1986. Now, many other states may follow suit.

"The Palm Beach fiasco has been a kick in the pants for municipal governments," says Mike Yaffe of Shym Technology in Needham, Mass. The company has developed a way to imbed electronic signatures on a smart card or driver's license.

A citizen could carry the license into a voting booth, swipe it at an ATM-type closed-network computer, and vote.

Mr. Yaffe says he has been fielding dozens of inquiries, as well as making a few of his own. Even if officials "aren't ready to cut an order tomorrow," he says, "they are using this as an opportunity to take a long, hard look at what they're doing."

Shym is also working on fingerprint and retina-scan identification, but that is years off - mostly because people find it too invasive, says Yaffe.

It won't be cheap

Back at Hart, the eSlate system tested in two cities in Colorado and one in Texas came off with no glitches - and a lot of praise from voters. But each hand-held computerized device costs $2,500, a steep price for many municipalities.

Indeed, cost has long been the No. 1 reason voting equipment is not upgraded. "Frankly, many cities don't have the money," Galvin says. "Voting equipment is kind of like the snow plow: It gets seasonal usage, and you don't think about it unless there is a problem."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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