Published on Friday, December 12, 2003 by the Miami Herald
Voting Machines Need a Paper Trail
by Faye M. Anderson
 

This week marks the third anniversary of Bush vs. Gore, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that halted the Florida ballot recount. The 36-day impasse exposed the cracks in the state's electoral infrastructure.

Still, the Supreme Court failed to address Florida voters' unequal access to reliable voting machines. In an interview, Harvard Law Professor Laurence H. Tribe, who argued the first appeal, told me, ``There was under the surface of these little hanging chads, this overwhelming series of profound inequalities among the different counties.''

After the election debacle, states -- including Florida, Georgia and Maryland -- overhauled their election laws. And last year, President Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act, which authorizes billions of dollars to the states to upgrade their voting machinery and election administration.

Election officials have since spent hundreds of millions of dollars on touch-screen voting systems whose performance has not restored voters' confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. One reason: Electronic voting machines lack an auditable paper trail. This design flaw is particularly puzzling given that electronic transactions from ATMs to stores routinely provide a user-verified printout.

Without a paper record, states are simply throwing money at the problem. In doing so, the chief beneficiaries of the Florida fiasco are the four voting-machine manufacturers that dominate the industry. These companies have reaped a windfall on the backs of black voters, whose disproportionate disenfranchisement put election reform on lawmakers' radar screens.

Consider:

In the 2002 Florida primary election, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency and ordered polls to stay open two additional hours because of malfunctioning touch-screen machines in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. In the general election, 104,000 votes were lost and later ''harvested'' from touch-screen machines in Broward County.

Last month in Fairfax County, Va., touch-screen machines malfunctioned in nine precincts. Computer ''glitches'' tainted several hundred votes and prompted Republicans to file a lawsuit challenging the results.

One vendor, Diebold Election Systems Inc., is at the center of growing doubts about the accuracy and security of touch-screen voting machines. The Diebold system is deployed in jurisdictions in California, Florida and Maryland. In a marketing coup, Diebold won a $54 million contract to provide touch-screen machines for all of Georgia's 159 counties.

In a testimonial posted on its website, Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox praises Diebold for ''going above and beyond the call of duty to help the state implement this enormous endeavor.'' Cox's peachy assessment is not shared by black voters. A Peach State Poll found that only 40 percent of black respondents felt ''very confident'' that their votes were accurately counted compared to 79 percent of whites. Exit polls in two Maryland counties using Diebold machines found a similar racial gap in voters' confidence.

Concerns have been heightened by Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell's widely reported vow to help ''Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.'' This pledge by a major Bush fundraiser has fueled conspiracy theories about ballot tampering next year.

With an evenly divided electorate, polls suggest that the presidential race will likely be close. According to Election Data Services, nearly one in five voters cast their ballot on electronic machines in 2002. If the past is prologue, the primary colors on Election Night 2004 may not be Democratic-blue and Republican-red. Instead, they may be black-and-blue as voters' confidence in the electoral process takes another beating because of computer glitches that throw into question the legitimacy of the outcome.

The machinery of our democracy must not be entrusted to a handful of unaccountable vendors and a revolving door of election officials-cum-lobbyists peddling unproven and untested ''solutions.'' We the people must demand transparent voting machines that are worthy of America's role as a beacon of democracy. That would be the lasting legacy of Bush vs. Gore.

Faye M. Anderson is the writer and producer of Counting on Democracy, a documentary about the 2000 Florida presidential election.

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