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Tallying the Woes of Electronic Balloting

September 24, 2004|Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writer

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.

Election officials nationwide were anxious to toss their antiquated voting systems after the 2000 presidential election debacle, which featured teams of Florida vote counters squinting to determine whether chads were hanging, pregnant or dimpled. Twenty-nine percent of registered voters will use touch-screen machines this November, up dramatically from 12% only four years ago, according to Election Data Services, a political consulting firm in Washington.

In California, 11 counties representing about 20% of the state's registered voters will use electronic voting machines in November.

The appeal of electronic voting machines was simple: They eliminate the headaches of dealing with paper.

With most models, voters select their candidates by pressing the screen just as they would to withdraw cash from an ATM. The machines ask users to confirm their selections before storing their votes on an internal hard drive and ensure that ballots aren't disqualified because votes are accidentally cast for more than one candidate in a race.

There are other advantages too. The screens can be programmed to display ballots in different languages, greatly reducing printing costs. And advocates for disabled people like the fact that the voting terminals can display ballots in large type and guide blind people through the voting process using audio prompts.

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?

Now election officials in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade are lobbying the state for permission to attach printers to their new machines so votes can be tallied by hand if a malfunction is suspected or a recount is called for.

But state officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush, say the machines are safe, easy to use and replete with safeguards to ensure accuracy. They note that a stored digital image of each vote can be printed for a manual recount. And they say printers are expensive, difficult to maintain for poll workers and useless for blind people who can't read the paper record.

"Creating a paper trail for each voter is unnecessary except to eliminate the paranoia of the critics," officials with the Florida Department of State and the Florida State Assn. of Supervisors of Elections wrote in a policy paper this summer.

Many voters seem comfortable with the machines. As he emerged from a polling place in Palm Beach Gardens during Florida's August primary, Mike Tuchman, a physician, said he hadn't thought twice about casting his vote on a computer.

"We make decisions about life and death every day with these things," he said. "So I guess they can count my vote."

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