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October 10, 2006
Paper Trails At The Voting Booth

E. J. Dionne tackles the controversy over electronic voting machines that has arisen since their rushed implementation following the 2000 presidential election. Dionne argues that a little paranoia isn't always a bad thing:

Sometimes, paranoids are right. And sometimes even when paranoids are wrong, it's worth considering what they're worried about.

I speak here of all who are worried sick that those new, fancy high-tech voting systems can be hacked, fiddled with and otherwise made to record votes that aren't cast or fail to record votes that are.

I do not pretend to know how large a threat this is. I do know that it's a threat to democracy when so many Americans doubt that their votes will be recorded accurately. And I also know that smart, computer-savvy people are concerned about these machines.

The perfectly obvious thing is for the entire country to do what a number of states have already done: require paper trails so that if we have a close election or suspect something went wrong, we have the option to go back and check the results.

For most of us, the perfectly obvious thing was to question why a balloting process that had been in use for decades had to be tossed aside simply because one party didn't like the outcome of the race. In California, we had used the butterfly ballot for decades; we had one in every election in which I voted. The punch-card ballots made it very easy to ensure that my vote was recorded correctly, and booth instructions warned voters to check that all chads got properly cleared from the ballot before filing it.

All of a sudden, because of one close election, American voters suddenly discovered that the venerable punch-card ballot was the gravest threat to democracy since Huey Long and J. Edgar Hoover. Rather than comprehend that every election will have its share of voters who do not follow instructions, reformers insisted that our freedom hinged on our ability to provide a voting system that would protect us from our own incompetence. These reformers -- including many of the same people who now object to the electronic voting machines -- proclaimed the electronic machine the savior of the electoral process.

However, the reformers didn't take into consideration that the system they hailed simply wasn't ready for prime time. Diebold rushed it to market, unmindful of security problems and internal errors in its programming. It occasionally misrecorded votes, and voters had no way to check its output. For most products, this would mean more R&D and a few more trials to determine reliability. In time, this could have been an excellent product -- and the punch-card system had enough reliability to give it that time, under normal circumstances. Instead, reformers insisted that local governments buy these new and flawed systems by the thousands, wasting millions of dollars and ruining Diebold's reputation.

Dionne is right, but he fails to mention the paranoia that fueled this laughable cycle of so-called electoral reform. Paranoia is never a good basis for public policy, and neither is panic. The reason we find ourselves in the situation Dionne rightly decries is because a bunch of sore losers convinced a large number of people to buy into their paranoia and forced a change that turned out badly.

As for me, I live in Minnesota, where we use an optical-scan ballot. We use a black pen to fill in the circles for our desired candidates, and then we put the ballot into a reader. If the ballot has an error, it spits it out and we re-do it. If not, we see the reader accept the ballot and we leave, secure in the knowledge that our vote will be counted. Maybe the rest of the country might catch up with us by the time we host the Republican National Convention in 2008.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 10, 2006 6:34 AM

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