If Paper Ballots Restore Trust In Elections, Let's Switch

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Well into the second decade of the television era, the machines still conked out, a lot. "TV's on the fritz again," folks would say. There was such a thing as a TV repairman, who would come to your house. Now, TVs work.

Here in the relatively early stages of the computer era, these vastly more complex machines still lock up and shut down. Yet we're so enraptured by computers' power that we want them to do everything -- even handle the sacred core of our democracy, voting.

But the machines aren't yet reliable, at least not 100 percent. Maryland voters learned this firsthand in last week's primary, and now the state has less than seven weeks to gin up a credible, smooth general election.

The obvious solution, as Gov. Bob Ehrlich said yesterday, is to put the machines in the closet (actually, returning them to the store is an even better idea; does anybody in Annapolis still have that receipt for $106 million?) and go back to paper ballots. The governor bemoaned flaws in the Diebold electronic poll books that Maryland used for the first time last week to check in voters: "Technology is a wonderful thing, but clearly, given their apparent inability to function appropriately -- when in doubt, go paper, go lower technology."

But going back to technology that works means giving up on cutting-edge modernity, admitting error and angering a giant corporation that has been pushing states across the country to go electronic. This will not be easy. Ehrlich said he may even call a special session of the legislature to rework the law requiring Maryland to use electronics rather than paper.

I asked the state's elections administrator, Linda Lamone, whether Maryland wasn't just a bit too quick to adopt electronic voting. Doesn't the computer at your desk ever freeze up on you?

"No," she replied.

Never?

"No."

But surely people in your office have had that experience?

"No."

(Maybe we've found the solution to Maryland's voting problem: Everybody head on down to Linda Lamone's office, where the machines work 100 percent of the time.)


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