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Step Toward Election Standards

November 29, 2004

The Internet conspiracy theories that George W. Bush supporters stole the election by tampering with electronic voting equipment have finally died down, and for good reason. The new machines generally worked well, and there's no evidence that their data were corrupted in ways that could have swung the election.

That doesn't mean, though, that the nation's precincts should continue moving to the latest and most costly e-voting systems. The conventional wisdom now emerging -- that the lack of evidence that e-voting systems improperly influenced the election means that fraud would have been impossible -- is just as loopy as the cloak-and-dagger conspiracy theories it is replacing.

Touch-screen systems, which recorded about 30% of the nation's votes Nov. 2 (up from 12% four years ago), suffer from a host of security flaws that their manufacturers and local election officials have done little to correct. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to recognize the possibility of someone using a home computer, a modem and some hacker savvy to break into most of the touch-screen devices now on the market. The most obvious deterrent to such fraud is one that only Nevada managed to implement Nov. 2: a paper printout that scrolls under glass at the edge of the screen.

One way to fix the problem is simply to not use touch-screen systems. Voting-technology experts tend to favor optical scanners, like those used in Los Angeles County, which cost one-third as much and have been shown in some studies to produce lower voter error rates.

Regardless of what system is used, though, it will have a credibility problem until Washington mandates national standards to guide how local precincts oversee voting technologies. Incredibly, the "independent" labs that local election officials hire to monitor software and hardware errors on e-voting systems are often paid by the makers of the machines. When those lab techs find problems, they are often prohibited by nondisclosure agreements from sharing them with election officials. Invitations to mischief rarely come clearer than that.

No one wants Washington to exert federal control over the ballot boxes, which state and local governments have governed since the nation's inception. But that doesn't mean Congress couldn't, or shouldn't, set basic certification and oversight procedures.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office took the first step toward establishing such standards. At Democrats' request, the GAO agreed to study how well both touch-screen and optical scan systems fared in the last election.

The audit should put useful pressure on the many local precincts that still haven't complied with open-records requests by those seeking to verify that everything was above board.

The conspiracy theories should be put to rest, but so should the complacency.

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