Washington Watch -- Trendlines

Now, on to the Next Election

The clamor after Election Day to adopt electronic ballots reflects our collective preference for whatever is newest. Whether you voted for Bush or Gore, you have to wonder why we use punch-card ballots when they ought to be resting in peace with living-room-size mainframes. Flipping little levers? How 19th century. Literally, those machines were first used in 1892. From the beginning, computing has been driven by our need to count and calculate faster and more accurately -- which is what we're doing when we tally votes.

We're not talking about Internet voting, which isn't quite ready for prime time, but about using computers in polling places. Even though the machines were first introduced in the 1980s, only around 7 percent of precincts nationwide use them, "We should empower each family with a $1,000-per-child education tax credit so that parents can purchase computers, educational software or tutors for their children." -SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R-VA.) according to the consultancy Election Data Services. One reason is because the machines (generically called direct recording electronics or DREs), which enable voters to enter their choices into a computer that records them on a diskette or tape, are more expensive than older technologies.

Yet there are some strong arguments in their favor. They don't let you vote twice, and they prompt you to vote if you leave a box blank. There are no hanging chads, no double votes, no paper to misfeed or misread. "The types of errors that do tend to occur in computer-based processes are usually human-induced," says Robert C. Rassa, director of system supportability at Raytheon Electronic Systems Co. and chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Instrumentation and Measurement Society's technical and standards activities committee.

Rassa thinks DREs are the most accurate of the voting machines on the market. "The voting process is extremely simple data entry, and DREs are configured to prevent data entry error," he says. Charlotte Cleary, who administers elections for Arlington County, Va., agrees. She bought DREs a decade ago and says, "I don't know anyone in the business who says we don't need to [adopt these systems]."

But electronic ballots aren't a cure-all, says Deborah Phillips, president of the nonprofit Voting Integrity Project, an election watchdog group. She thinks local election boards should choose technology that best suits voters. If they aren't comfortable with the machines, they might not vote.

Phillips thinks election officials can promote more accurate tallies simply by establishing procedures that control human errors, like having enough poll workers around to show voters how to use their ballots. A dozen years ago, a study sponsored by the nonprofit Markle Foundation said as much. "An Election Administrator's Guide to Computerized Voting Systems" found even those infamous punch cards were accurate if the election was "soundly managed and adequately staffed."

>Mark Wolosik, the election division manager for Allegheny County, Pa. (which includes Pittsburgh), says he'd like to get rid of the lever machines the county has used since the 1960s. But he would need at least $12 million to outfit the county with 3,000 DREs that would be used only twice a year. He says he's talked informally with the county's CIO about the project, and it isn't a top priority.

In Congress, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa) have called for commissions to study whether there should be national standards for technology used in federal elections. It's unclear whether Congress would ever mandate that local governments buy new voting machines, but if they did, officials like Cleary and Wolosik would want the feds to come up with some cash.

This story, "Washington Watch -- Trendlines" was originally published by CIO.

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