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Opinion

Touch-screen voting should be a help

Roughly a third of U.S. voters in the November election are

expected to use electronic voting machines. In California, any county using

these machines also must provide the option of a paper ballot. This may comfort

those who are "freaking out" (to quote the head of a voting advocacy group)

that their vote somehow won't count if made on a computer screen. But they are

making a false assumption that paper is safer than electronic records.

In fact, electronic voting machines offer the safest voting method

currently available - provided that their use is carefully supervised and

monitored.

The 29 percent of Americans who will vote electronically in California, 28

other states and the District of Columbia don't have to worry about their votes

being "helpfully" altered by a poll worker, as I witnessed happening with

optical scan ballots at a precinct in Massachusetts last November. Nor can

electronic votes be temporarily misplaced, as the ballot box was where I was

poll watching last October in California.

The ideal voting machine would demonstrate to the voter that his ballot has

been included in the final count before he leaves the booth. But even without

that assurance, it's important to remember that since Thomas Edison first

experimented with an electronic voting device in 1869, each introduction of

technology to voting has been challenged by those fearful of its being used to

change votes. The best protection has always been human oversight.

Whatever the system - paper, electronic or the antiquated lever machines

still in use in New York and parts of other states - a two-person rule is the

key to avoiding the alteration or loss of a vote. At least two people must be

involved in every step in which the system could be compromised - testing the

ballot, distributing the ballots, storing equipment before and after elections,

setting up the equipment, handling paper ballots or smart cards, shutting off

equipment, and, of course, assembling the tallies.

I have seen poor supervision in many of the hundreds of precincts that I

have monitored in the last three years. One election official was writing down

the ballot total by herself at the end of an election day in Nevada in

September. In Chicago, a lone poll worker accidentally allowed people to insert

the incorrect punch cards into voting machines; in Nevada this September, lone

election officials accidentally programmed provisional ballots for voters - in

both cases depriving voters of voting on local issues. In each of these

instances, getting another poll worker to sign that the correct ballot was

used, or that the count was done correctly, would lead to a more secure and

auditable result.

If a voting machine freezes or otherwise malfunctions on Election Day, poll

workers must call troubleshooters immediately. This solved several problems in

Reno, where there was a timely and helpful response. Some places have

certified "hot machines" in vehicles ready to be deployed wherever problems

surface; this should be practiced everywhere.

Absentee voting is more prone to discrepancies than other kinds of voting,

but it is hard to get data on it. I watched part of a recount of absentee

ballots in Broward County, Fla., in 2002. The ballots were in a warehouse with

an open loading dock door, workers were coming and going with no check-in,

boxes of ballots were not clearly marked, and the central reader jammed.

The voter cannot control these unfortunate events, which demand better

on-site supervision. But he can guard against the three most prevalent ways

that non-absentee ballot votes were lost in 2000: registration problems,

confusion over ballot design and lost ballots. A voter needs to check his

registration and make sure he goes to the right polling place, make sure he has

voted for the candidate of his choice, and give himself enough time to vote

carefully and alert poll workers if problems occur.

As a result of the confusion in 2000, the Help America Vote Act was put in

place to help fund improved voting equipment and training for poll workers and

election officials. In November, about 12 percent of the voting machines will

be new. With poll workers more aware of potential problems, and numerous

organizations formed to monitor the voting, this likely will be the most

observed election in U.S. history. If in addition each voter does whatever he

can to make sure his vote counts, we can have the most modernized, secure and

accurate vote ever recorded.

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