Electronic voting's moment of truth

This November, many Americans will encounter electronic voting for the first time. Will it go smoothly? The primaries have shown that problems with the new voting process are likely. So election officials must be prepared, and have a backup plan.

With 9,500 voting jurisdictions in the country, and about half a dozen vendors supplying electronic voting machines, it's not possible to know how widespread problems will be.

But in a politically divided country, with control of both the US House and Senate at stake and many races tight, it's certain that the mechanics of voting itself will receive intense scrutiny.

Elections around the country this year illustrate a wide variety of problems:

•In the Maryland primary this week, officials forgot to include electronic voter cards needed to activate machines in Montgomery County – a suburb of Washington. Voting was delayed, and many voters gave up. Backup provisional paper ballots were in short supply, and in some cases, voters wrote down choices on scrap paper.

•In Iowa, a local election looked to be running smoothly until it was noticed that a college student was leading against an experienced politician. The problem was a ballot-counting malfunction with the new technology.

•In the Michigan primary in August, election officials counted over 100 problems with electronic voting in Oakland County. These problems ranged from machine jamming to rejected test ballots. One election official complained about late delivery of equipment from a vendor so busy that the programming wasn't done properly.

Part of the problem is that states have been rushing to introduce electronic voting to meet requirements of the 2002 Help America Vote Act. The act sprang from the Florida ballot-counting debacle in the 2000 presidential election. The act doesn't mandate electronic voting per se, but it says that any state using HAVA money to modernize must provide systems that are secure and reliable, and also accessible to disabled people. This has been interpreted to mean a wholesale switch to electronic voting.

A bipartisan report to the National Science Foundation in July warned that "some jurisdictions – and possibly many – may not be well prepared" for electronic voting in November. Issues of reliability, usability, security, election-worker training, and voter education "remain open and quite fluid."

In the short term, election officials must focus on contingency planning for November. They should have plenty of provisional paper ballots on hand. They should have technicians on call, and even a few spare voting machines ready for quick delivery if needed. They should be able to direct voters to other polling places.

It's harder to size up the longer term. States now realize that the cost of this new process is much larger than the initial price tag. Twenty-seven states have mandated paper-verification of electronic voting – an added, but worthwhile cost. Meanwhile, voters in at least 12 states are suing to replace the new technology.

It may turn out that primaries acted as a test run, and glitches will be minimal by Nov. 7. But there's no question that Election Day will serve as a moment of truth for electronic voting. Election officials must do all they can to prepare for it.

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