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Editorial, August 19, 2008
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Editorial, Intelligencer, August 19, 2008


Losing touch: Electing to use a screen to vote has drawbacks

“DON'T THROW the past away. You might need it some rainy day.”

  — from “Everything Old Is New Again,” by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager.

Paper ballots, which some thought would go the way of record players and typewriters, are back.

According to a nationwide Associated Press survey, 57 percent of American voters live in counties that will be using paper ballots in the November election. For the most part, these are not the traditional paper ballots that have to be counted by hand, but ballots read by optical scanning machines, which record spaces filled in by voters next to candidate names.

More and more states are abandoning touch-screen voting machines, once hailed as the solution to voting snafus, in favor of the optical scanners.

Florida is in the process of replacing 25,000 touch screens, which cost tens of millions of dollars, with optical scanners.

Maryland will spend $20 million to buy optical scanners for its 23 counties by 2010, replacing touch screens that cost an estimated $65 million.

In Pennsylvania, 17 of 67 counties use voter-marked paper ballots, according to VotePA, an alliance of groups seeking to replace computerized voting. Most recently, Centre County commissioners voted last month to switch to optical scanners.

Chester is the only county in the Philadelphia area to use optical scanners. Montgomery has used touch screens since 1996 and Bucks since 2006.

Supporters of electronic voting insist the touch-screen machines are reliable, accurate and hacker-proof.

But skeptics — among them the Coalition for Voting Integrity in Bucks County — beg to differ. They say electronic ballots can be tampered with and leave no paper trail in case of a contested election or a machine malfunction.

Florida was prompted to switch, in part, because touch-screen machines failed to record 18,000 votes in a 2006 congressional race in Sarasota County.

While we can't say computerized machines are unreliable, we do feel uneasy about relying solely on computers to record votes, given the ingenuity of hackers and the susceptibility to glitches. Some touch-screen machines are equipped with a paper tape backup, but that won't help if the votes themselves have been electronically tampered with.

It's true that mechanical lever machines, such as those used for decades in Bucks and Montgomery counties, never had paper backup. However, those machines had odometer-like counters to record votes, and these could be checked if questions arose about vote totals recorded on tally sheets.

With optical scanners, the ballots can be rescanned or recounted by hand in case of a dispute.

Advocates of this system say it is less costly in the long run because only one scanner is needed per polling place, instead of multiple electronic machines. Voters mark their ballots at separate tables and then feed them into the scanner. A special ballot marker machine assists voters who are blind or handicapped.

We still wish the federal government hadn't forced counties to change proven voting methods, such as the reliable lever machines.

While we're not ready to throw millions of dollars of electronic voting machines in the trash, we urge the commissioners in Bucks and Montgomery counties to takes seriously the concerns raised by groups such as the Coalition for Voting Integrity. Should more evidence show touch-screen machines are unreliable, these counties may have to join the move back to the future.

If the public loses faith in the integrity of voting machines, then our entire system of elections is in jeopardy.

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