Needed: Voting machine integrity 

Since the dawning of the voting machine era, technophobes and conspiracy theorists alike have worried about the potential electronic treachery to be unleashed. Surely, the fear-mongers reasoned, any device so sensitive as a touch-screen or an optical-scan ballot would result in political mischief, even if set up in the states to preclude another punch-card debacle such as bedeviled us in the 2000 presidential election.

Not that the fears are entirely unwarranted. We don’t buy into the paranoid narrative that George W. Bush manipulated enough hanging chads in Florida to steal the election from Al Gore, but the monthlong trauma, in which whoever would be the 43rd president was determined in federal court, called for a major corrective. In 2002, Congress provided that corrective, the Help America Vote Act, by which federal tax dollars were distributed throughout the states to launch the technologically superior machines.

The machines, generally reliable, have created a whole new set of fears. Another disputed election in Florida has triggered a call for a federal investigation. Last November’s race in Sarasota County was decided by a mere 360 votes, enough to give any campaign strategist the willies. Weirdly, 18,000 eligible voters made choices in minor races, but not in the heated congressional race itself.

That is called an undercount, which conceivably can happen if voters find both major candidates distasteful and decline to show a preference, opting to vote in lesser races instead. A winner had to be chosen, and Republican Vern Buchanan was certified over Democrat Christine Jennings, who is contesting the outcome. Jennings won’t accept a benign explanation for the anomaly, and we can’t blame her.

Enter Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who, her Democratic partisanship aside, has instructed the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, to ascertain the trustworthiness of touch-screen machines such as those employed in Sarasota. Last week, the San Franciscan, for the first time chairing the Senate Rules Committee, called for legislation that would require a "paper trail" record of all votes cast electronically in the 2008 presidential election.

She is, of course, on the right track here. "Imagine what would happen," Feinstein speculates, "if a similar undercount occurred in a swing state election in the presidential contest and there was no independent means of verification."

It is not paranoid to hanker for some sort of Beta testing of these machines, much of which has been done nationwide courtesy of the Help America Vote Act. And it should becalm the technophobes among us to be able to clutch some sort of paper verification between your very own fingers.

To be sure, Feinstein is hearing about paper jams and printer snafus, and various registrars plead for adequate timelines as they sweat the 2008 deadline. All that is predictable. We wish the senator speedy satisfaction.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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