Sunday, September 26, 2004

Tallying the Woes of Electronic Balloting

By Chris Gaither, Los Angeles Times, September 24, 2004


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — More than 45 million people in 29 states and the District of Columbia are set to vote using touch-screen machines Nov. 2. But the devices once hailed as the answer to the nation's voting woes are stirring up some serious cases of buyer's remorse here and across the country.

California officials have accused the companies that make electronic voting machines of delivering shoddy equipment and are suing to get their money back. Candidates in other states seeking to overturn questionable election results have turned to the courts as well. Election reform advocates rallied in 19 states this summer, demanding that the machines be retrofitted to produce paper ballots that could be tallied in the event of a recount.

Meanwhile, computer scientists from coast to coast have warned that the machines sometimes err in counting votes and could be easily compromised by amateur hackers intent on disrupting elections. In either case, they say, a manual recount would be meaningless if it was based on corrupted electronic data.

All of this has left officials like Palm Beach County Commissioner Addie Greene wishing they hadn't rushed to spend millions of dollars on the new touch-screen machines so soon.

In the last few months, as Greene campaigned for reelection, she told dozens of senior citizens to forget the newfangled voting terminals and put pencil to paper on their absentee ballots instead.

"I want our votes to be counted," said Greene, a 61-year-old Democrat. "I'd rather do absentee ballots than take a chance on the machines."

Greene is an unlikely critic of the electronic voting machines. After all, she helped get 5,000 of them deployed throughout this seaside county of 1.2 million residents.


In April 2001, Greene flew to Riverside County with a delegation of South Florida officials to see the touch-screen machines in action. They came home with rave reviews and spent $56 million to deploy electronic voting terminals in Florida's three most populous counties: Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.

"We were not as knowledgeable as we are now, so we made a lot of mistakes," Greene recalled. "We didn't ask the questions we should have asked."

Chief among them: How can we conduct a recount if we don't have any ballots to count?

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