Fear and loathing on the paper trail: Readers respond to Farhad Manjoo's "Downloading of the Presidency '04."

By Salon Staff
Published August 31, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

One point that no one seems to talk about when recommending absentee ballots as a solution is that no matter how many people choose to vote absentee, a single manipulated voting machine can swing an election anyway.

All the machine has to do is add or subtract a large number to or from a candidate's total. It is true that the absentee ballot may essentially be its own paper trail, but if you have 100,000 paper ballots for Kerry and 100,001 electronic votes for Bush, then Bush still wins.

-- Jack Walther

I live in Florida and will vote absentee. I want my vote to count. And I am going to vote twice. I am concerned that there will be a concerted effort to "deliver" Florida to the Republican Party. With electronic machines, you only need one "fix" to do it. With paper absentee ballots, the same fix has to be applied every time. So my official vote will be for Sen. Kerry and the Democratic ticket. The vote of my feet will be against the current electronic machines without paper backup. If enough people refuse to use the machines, election officials will be forced to improve them.

-- Gerry Maron

What I've never understood from the discussion of a paper trail on electronic machines is how a secret ballot it preserved. The Nevada system, as it's described (a continuous paper trail showing the votes) combined with the poll records, which at least in my precinct show what order voters voted in, would destroy the secret ballot. I'd always assumed this paper trail would be printed and given to the voter, who then drops it in the ballot box.

In addition to, or even in lieu of, Dill's call for technically savvy people to monitor the vote, I'd encourage technically savvy people to work as poll officials on election. This is a complicated but rewarding job with many, many rules and regulations. Finding people who can understand all these rules and exceptions in these positions is a real challenge for local election officials. Young to middle-aged technically literate people are perfect for this kind of position and it only takes a few days of your time per year.

-- Eric Vaandering

My wife and I are both handicapped. We just received about a week ago our absentee ballots, which require the simple "connect the arrows format" we used in our last election. I cannot imagine any simpler system than that. Any child in kindergarten can do it. I tried it on two of my grandchildren -- one 8 and one 7. They both had no trouble. Then I fabricated one for my 17-month-old grandchild and placed an apple, a banana, a cherry and a piece of candy at the end of the arrow and told her to draw the line in the broken arrow that points to what she wanted after I demonstrated how to do it. Guess what!!! She drew the line to the candy, and that is what she wanted ... and that is what she got. Now if someone is so non compos mentis as to not be able to do that, then they should not be allowed to vote. They could not possibly understand the issues, which is even worse for the system than "chads."

-- John Burge

Farhad Manjoo makes a lot of interesting points in his article about electronic voting. I agree that a paper trail (as a backup to the electronic system) is essential and I would like to see this required by law. I would propose that all electronic voting machines spit out a two-part receipt, one part to be retained by election officials in case there's a need for a manual recount and the other to be retained by the voter.

But there's another issue with electronic voting that has not been widely discussed. I understand that the machines have built-in modems. My question is, why? Surely hacking the machines while in the voting booth is possible, but a greater threat by far is someone able to hack the results from afar from the comfort of a padded chair in an office park somewhere.

I would like to see a law passed forbidding any telecommunications capability in voting machines; should software updates be needed, the manufacturer should provide a CD-ROM (which is a permanent record of the software changes that can be later examined and audited) to update the software rather than delivering patches online.

-- Ken Schellenberg

Hi from Australia,

I've been following your electronic voting saga for a couple of years now and I'm just amazed at how open to scamming it is. Such a system would never get to first base here.

Here we register to vote with a government agency for both state and federal elections. The same agency takes care of candidate registration, running the poll, and counting and recording the ballots.

On polling day enrolled electors go to a polling station at a school or other public building. Workers from the community man the stations, and they are paid for this service. They check your name against a paper roll of enrolled voters and then initial and hand you a specially printed ballot paper. No form of identity is required for you to be issued a ballot paper.

Voters then go to a booth where they mark their ballot, which is then lodged in a sealed ballot box in the center of the polling station. The ballot paper has the names and parties of candidates clearly printed, and requires to be marked 1, 2, 3 or, in some cases, ticked.

At the close of polling, the same workers count the votes, watched carefully by representatives of the political parties. Any disputed ballots are adjudicated on the night -- or later if required. All ballots are kept for recounting. After absentee and postal votes are included, the poll is declared. If the result is close, it is automatically counted in full view of representatives of the political parties.

In a very extreme circumstances the courts may be involved in ordering a recount.

To be perfectly frank, I am bemused by your system and wonder that you countenance it.

-- David Monroe

The article makes the dubious claim that "to computer scientists, the only way to secure these machines is to have them print out 'verifiable' paper ballots -- a paper ballot that a voter accepts or rejects as his accurate vote, and which is then counted in the case of a contested election." As anyone who has the slightest knowledge of computers knows, it would be trivial to print the selections made by a voter while recording something completely different. The only way to insure that a vote is counted accurately is to use the computer to create a printed ballot that is easily read by both a scanner and a human. It is these votes that should be counted by machine and then recounted by humans if there is any question in the machine's reading.

-- Debra Enfield

Salon Staff

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