Congress puts off fixing touch-screen voting

Instead of instituting a real fix for the scourge of electronic voting, Democrats look ready to adopt a money-wasting quick fix.

Published July 21, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

Wired's Kim Zetter picked up hints of this Wednesday, and Christopher Drew of the New York Times got the full story Friday: Congress is punting on voting-machine reform.

Drew reports that in deference to disability-rights advocates and election officials across the nation, Democrats are watering down New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt's long-in-the-wings bill to address the problems raised by unverifiable paperless touch-screen voting machines. Rather than require elections officials to purchase verifiable optical-scan voting systems, Congress is considering mandating that all the nation's touch-screen machines be equipped with small -- and not very well-regarded -- cash-register-style printers for the 2008 and 2010 election. Only in 2012 would states be required to switch to more secure optical-scan balloting systems.

I just spoke to David Dill, the Stanford computer science professor who founded the voting rights advocacy group Verified Voting, and he calls the quick fix a very bad idea. Dill notes that the printers the House is considering mandating have not performed very well in the past.

In the 2006 primary election in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Diebold's touch-screen machines included thermal printers that were supposed to print out an image of each voter's ballot; the voter was to check this slip of paper to make sure the machine had accurately recorded his vote. But when the Election Science Institute studied that race, it found that nearly 10 percent of the printed ballot images were in some way ruined -- some paper trails had been crumpled, some had been torn, some machines printed out blank sheets.

"Forcing people to buy cheap printers for 2008 -- all that does is allow companies that manufactured bad printers to offload them at taxpayer expense," Dill says.

The Holt bill was supposed to have been different, Dill says. In May, when the bill passed the House Administration Committee, it was in a form that could have greatly improved the nation's electoral machinery. That bill would have pushed for most jurisdictions to adopt optical-scan systems rather than touch-screens equipped with printers. On an opti-scan machine, a voter marks a paper ballot by hand; the ballot is then counted by a computerized counting machine. The systems are generally regarded as the best voting tech in the land: They're verifiable (i.e., the paper ballots can always be manually counted by human beings) and they reduce voters' errors (like voting too many times in a specific race).

"I'd always been under the impression that once a bill gets out of committee then it's voted on by the full House," Dill says. "But then something strange happened -- senior leaders of the House got a hold of it and started making changes."

According to the New York Times, the two Democratic leaders in the House, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, agreed with disability advocates in Washington who say that optical-scan systems would set back the cause of allowing people with handicaps to vote without assistance. Disability advocates favor touch-screen machines because they offer an audio version of the ballot; a blind person can vote on a touch-screen machine without assistance.

Dill disagrees that touch-screen systems are the only way to give the disabled access to the polls. He points out that optical-scan systems can be rendered accessible with the addition of electronic ballot markers; these machines provide audio feedback to people as they vote on a standard optical-scan ballot. "By and large disabled voters who've tested this option have been happy with the solution," Dills says.

Dill believes that if Congress acts fast, there's still time to replace most touch-screens with optical scan machines by next year's vote. If not -- and whether or not Congress institutes the buggy thermal-printer fix -- we will once again see an election of dubious integrity.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------