A Vote We Can Believe In

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

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.

So it is heartening that a diverse group -- Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives -- in Congress has proposed legislation to give everyone, even the supposedly paranoid, confidence that our elections are on the level.

The bill has been pushed by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), with strong support from Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.). It has 219 co-sponsors, which happens to be a majority of House members.

The bill requires that voting machines produce a permanent paper record that voters themselves can verify. It requires random, unannounced hand-count audits in 2 percent of all precincts to make sure the machines recorded votes properly.

It prohibits connecting any voting machine component to the Internet and bans political and financial conflicts of interest among manufacturers, test laboratories and political parties. It also includes protections for voters with disabilities.

Pretty much common sense, right? The problem is that the issue of protecting the right to vote has been mired in partisanship and in the suspicion that all who worry about electronic voting are crazy conspiracy-mongers who imagine the worst about everybody.

But Holt and Davis don't fit the stereotype. "I have steered clear of conspiracy theories because I'm not a conspiracist by nature," says Holt who has a PhD in physics and has no problem with innovation. "But I'm quick to say that you cannot disprove the conspiracy theories if you don't have a paper trail." Anyone with confidence in these machines should have faith that they'll pass any tests of how well they'd work.

Because of the bitter disputes over what happened in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, some Republicans are suspicious that all the noise surrounding the new voting machines is being generated by angry Democrats. "When I first introduced the bill a couple of sessions ago," Holt says, "a lot of Republicans stayed away from it because they believed that it was payback for Florida."

But over time, many Republicans have come to realize that machine errors are nonpartisan. Tom Davis is about as loyal a Republican as you'll find. He came to this cause in part because a result in a Virginia school board race not only defied everyone's expectations but seemed to him flatly wrong.

"Some people will call me paranoid," Davis chuckles, "but it was real clear to me that in that race, some votes weren't picked up." And the technology, he says, made it impossible to check the count.

In fact, as Davis notes, partisan splits on the new technologies vary sharply from state to state. Whichever party happened to control the election board that spent a lot of money on the new technologies tends to resist challenges to it. But defensiveness, by election officials or by vendors, should not get in the way of reforms and protections.

Nor, says Davis, should political polarization be allowed to stop even those reforms that have a lot of bipartisan support. "A lot of no-brainers that ought to be getting done," he says, "aren't getting done."

There are respectable studies -- for example, one released this summer by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law -- suggesting that the new machines may be far easier to hack than we want to know. But Holt explains why even skeptics of such studies should favor technological safety nets just in case they someday prove to be right.

"The winners will always believe the results of elections," says Holt. "But it eats away at democracy if the loser thinks that something went wrong, for accidental or malicious reasons."

Let's hope that things go okay this November, and then let's make sure that winners and losers alike can have confidence in our system the next time around.


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