FLORIDA'S VOTING fiasco of 2000 spawned reform efforts that vary from state to state. They should be pursued vigorously, but with care, as some reforms carry the potential for even greater abuse. One is the widely publicized touch-screen system that allows voters to record their choices simply by pressing a TV-style screen. This system virtually eliminates the problem of overvoting, in which a voter inadvertently chooses two candidates for one office, disqualifying the vote altogether. The system also cuts down on undervoting, by presenting the less-prominent races to the voter in a clearer way than do many current systems.
But touch-screen voting can be vulnerable to error and even fraud if it is not implemented with great diligence. One problem is that, if the final tally is simply reported by the touch-screen computer, there is no mechanism for double checking in cases where questions arise. Last month in local races in Fairfax County, Va., some machines were suspected of subtracting votes, rather than adding them, to the desired candidate.
There also have been suggestions that an expert hacker might be able to program the computers to give results different from the actual vote, or that certain machines might be disabled intentionally.
Manufacturers say these problems are easily overcome, but the issue was given prominence recently when one of the leading manufacturers of the touch-screen systems, Walden W. O'Dell of the Ohio firm Diebold Inc., turned out also to be one of President Bush's most enthusiastic backers. "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year," O'Dell wrote last August, inviting friends to a Republican fundraiser. O'Dell is a member of Bush's "Rangers and Pioneers," meaning he has raised at least $100,000 for Bush's reelection.
Diebold already has equipment in place in Georgia and Maryland and parts of six other states. These and other localities with new equipment should scrutinize their operation carefully. One minimal safeguard, which most manufacturers are willing to include, is a backup paper system that would be reliable for use in recounts.
In Massachusetts, most election officials now use optical scan ballots which contain circles to be filled in and read by a scanner, similar to college entrance exams. This system does not prevent overvoting, but is relatively dependable and difficult to manipulate. "It has worked out pretty well and is not very expensive," says Secretary of State William Galvin.
The Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress after the Florida debacle, requires states to upgrade their voting procedures promptly. But fancy equipment should not be installed until thoroughly tested. Voting is fundamental; reliability should come first.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.