Electronic voting

Posted: Dec 09, 2003 12:00 AM

Some three years after the Supreme Court ruled on the presidential election controversy in Florida, division remains on the issue of accurate vote counting. Now we are seeing an early indication of what may well be the focus of election result complaints in 2004.

Some states -- including Florida early on -- reacted to the 2000 complaints about hanging chads and spoiled paper ballots by moving to some form or fashion of electronic voting. In 2002, some expressed concerns about security and voter confusion in the use of these new systems. But states using electronic voting experienced few if any problems in 2002. Many of us who were among the most vocal skeptics admitted being pleased with the results.

Others, including the author of a recent New York Times column, remain highly skeptical of those same elections. But these critics seem to have as much problem with the results of certain elections as they do with the method of counting ballots. In fact, a year following the 2002 elections, the outcomes of some high-profile races in states that used the new systems are being called into question.

How ironic. When some of us were voicing our concerns about the integrity of electronic voting prior to the '02 elections, we were dismissed as conspiratorial, naive or just plain backward. The voices of concern didn't rise up until after some darkhorse Republicans upset their Democratic opponents.

Exhibit "A" in this new concern from the left comes from a pair of 2002 statewide races in Georgia. That's where well-financed Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes was defeated by a relatively unknown former state senator, Republican Sonny Perdue, and incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Cleland was beaten by then-Congressman Saxby Chambliss, another Republican. Those outcomes are now presented by some as prima facie evidence that the touch-screen voting system used in that day's elections, manufactured by a company called Diebold, may have failed to accurately reflect the public's will. Hogwash.

Cleland was sent home by the voters because his voting record was too liberal even for Georgia's moderate swing voters. And polling results show that Barnes, who started his term as a popular activist governor, bit off more projects than he could chew. In the span of one four-year term, he tried to completely overhaul education and transportation, plus change the state's controversial state flag. Barnes' former chief of staff attributes his boss's defeat largely to the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, and he readily admits there was no electronic ballot funny business involved.

Nevertheless the war of words over new voting systems continues. Various self-styled studies have suggested problems with electronic voting. One turned out to have been supported by someone who owned stock in a rival company to the one whose voting system was being challenged. In other cases, the controversy has focused on leaked internal memos or e-mails in which employees of a system manufacturer appear to express concerns about the security and reliability of their company's product.

The truth is that some of the concerns being expressed by the critics of this new style of voting may well be valid. It's not inconceivable that in an age in which identities can be stolen, funds be fraudulently transferred, and entire computer systems be hacked or infected with viruses that we might one day find ourselves the victim of major electronic election fraud.

At the same time, more than a few election contests conducted by traditional voting methods have been suspected of being fraudulent or manipulated in some way. For one, it has been widely thought that the results in Illinois for the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential contest were influenced by election hijinks. Thousands of sorely needed last-minute ballots came cascading in for Kennedy, providing the Democrats with a narrow margin of victory.

Those who have been part of voter recounts under the old punch-card system won't be surprised that elections might be the subject of chicanery. Then again, most old hands are used to seeing huge amounts of unreported "street money" -- often used literally to buy votes -- enter into the Election Day picture. And don't forget the standby ploy of holding open particular polling places hours after the polls close, in order to "stack" the necessary votes needed to win an election. Put all that together and one starts to get an idea of how vulnerable the voting process can be, regardless of the method used to tabulate votes.

Those critical of electronic voting may or may not have some basis for their concern. But it seems their concern is quickly amplified when Republicans win races. Where were these concerned voices before Bush-Gore 2000? Were they comfortable in the knowledge that the method was OK as long as the "correct" candidates won?