Fixes for accurate vote counts

Ever since the 2000 presidential voting snafus in Florida, Congress has tried hard to ensure that each voter's vote is counted. But bills introduced this month target the least of the system's problems – verifying results from electronic voting machines.

Of more concern should be the work-a-day pieces of the electoral puzzle, such as ballot design, training for poll workers, and voter registration methods. These have the potential to disenfranchise more voters than balky machines.

The latest poster child for possible problems with digital voting involved a tight US House race last November in Florida's 13th Congressional district, which includes Sarasota County.

The GOP candidate eked out a 400-vote victory over the Democrat. In Sarasota County, touch-screen machines were at first judged to have failed in recording votes in the race from 13 percent of voters casting ballots in other races. Other counties in the district recorded only a 5 percent "undervote." Last Friday, the state gave its final report on the troubles: The machines worked as designed – it was the way on-screen ballots were displayed that most likely caused the "undercount."

The House race appeared at the top of a screen mainly devoted to state races, violating the "best practices" axiom: Only one race per screen "page." Voters skipped over it. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate electronic voting techniques, with a focus on machines used in Sarasota.

The proposed bills, which would amend the 2002 Help America Vote Act, might have helped. They stipulate that electronic voting machines used in federal elections must leave a "paper trail" – paper ballots or receipts that voters can use to verify their choices before their vote is "cast." Paper would beat machine in any dispute, unless there's "clear and convincing" evidence that the paper record has been compromised.

Even if voters verify their choices, however, paper ballots can be – and are – mishandled. Too often ballots or boxfuls of ballots are handled by only one person and out of sight of others. Or ballot boxes are improperly transported. The bills in Congress would be stronger it they set up a third "arbiter" – for example, the immediate transmission of a vote to a secure archive off site.

Yet such fixes aren't enough. Researchers with groups such as the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project have noted that new voting technologies have shaved the number of "uncounted" votes – either intentional or unintentional "non-votes" – from 1.91 percent in 2000 to 1.07 percent four years later. The challenge: Even in states using the latest high-tech voting tools, old problems with registration, ballot design and mishandling, and poorly trained election workers, crop up.

By one estimate, some 2 million to 3 million voters in 2000 were "lost" because of registration issues. Often, poll workers receive minimal training or are not rigorously tested – even on tasks as simple as fixing printer jams. And they need tighter supervision on Election Day.

In their quest to ensure that every ballot counts, federal, state, and local election officials need to redouble their efforts to cast a wider net.

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