Photo: Dan Noyes
There is a middle ground in the debate. A multi-year study by scientists at MIT and Caltech found that problems with electronic voting were not more prevalent than with older systems, but criticized the machines as too secretive. The study also criticized electronic voting machines for failing to produce an independent audit trail. As a result, some manufacturers are trying to remedy that.
At the Denver convention, Guy Duncan, vice-president of technology at ES&S demonstrates a system that is an answer to critics like David Dill.
"This is actually a prototype unit that we've attached a printer to," explains Duncan. After tapping a screen, his sample ballot is cast. Within a few seconds, the machine also spits out a paper receipt detailing his selections. In a real vote, the paper would slide behind plexiglass into a locked box.
"So this system has created a voter-authenticated paper trail that allows the voter the make sure that their vote was cast as they intended," says Duncan. "Now the advantage to this is that it satisfies voters who say 'How can I trust that you're not manipulating my vote?'"
There is growing interest in machines, like these, that create what is called a voter-verified paper audit trail. But most of these systems are untested. They will not be available to election officials who are under intense pressure to retire old machines by 2004.
In spring 2003, after months of deliberation, Ernie Hawkins recommended Sacramento County put off a purchase of new voting machines.
The Board of Supervisors agreed and authorized an inexpensive upgrade to the existing system. Hawkins believes electronic machines are safe, but, he says that won't matter much if voters believe they are unsafe. Hawkins thinks that confidence in the integrity of the system is fundamental if elections are to be a success.
"It's the single most important thing government does, " explains Hawkins. "That's where we get our leaders, that's where we decide the issues, and it has to work and people have to believe that it works. If voters lose confidence in this process, they lose confidence in government."
To improve voter confidence and address the voting problems that were so prevalent in 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), an unprecedented effort to tackle the reasons so many people are shut out of the voting process. President George W. Bush promised $3.7 billion to fund the act.
"Every registered voter deserves to have confidence that the system is fair and elections are honest, that every vote is recorded and that the rules are consistently applied." --President Bush, upon signing legislation to authorize HAVA, October 22, 2002.
Part of the money will pay for state of the art voting equipment. The machines must be user-friendly for both disabled citizens and non-English speakers. If there's a problem, provisional paper ballots, must be offered. The law also mandates that states have to keep accurate voter rolls and that they must adequately train poll workers.
But the problems America now has probably won't be fixed by November 2004, when we vote for our next president.
At last count, 20 states had yet to meet any of the Help America Vote Act requirements and no state currently meets them all. The money from Washington has been flowing at only a trickle.
"It's being robbed now of an opportunity to be implemented by the lack of funds," explains former President Jimmy Carter. "When President Bush recommmended his 2004 budget, what he recommeded to implement the law was only just third of what the Congress said is really needed."
Carter, who monitors elections across the world, along with former President Gerald Ford, co-chaired the commission whose findings were the impetus for the Help America Vote Act.
"After the 2000 election in Florida -- which was a debacle and an embarrassment to us around the world," explains Carter, "that flurry of disappoinment and contsternation and queries resulted in moderate refoms. Now the tensions and concerns have faded away."
The Carter-Ford commission found that while no system will ever be perfect, election officials generally agree that a good error rate is under one percent. Unfortunately, the error rate in American elections tends to be above 4 percent. Lloyd Leonard of the League of Women Voters says that this is totally unacceptable.
"In the last presidential election," explains Leonard "there were four states each decided by less than one half of one percent of the vote. We don't know who is winning because our system can't count the vote."
Back to Whose Vote Counts?