Electoral Dysfunction

As the nation begins to consider electoral reforms designed to
prevent another Florida fiasco, a special challenge is in store for
journalists. A story line is already developing that new technology will
solve the kind of vote-counting problems that marred the presidential
election. And when it comes to new technology, look out: The very words
seem to bring out the gullibility of even the best reporters.

Exhibit A is a February 12 article in The New York Times
written by Katharine Q. Seelye. Under the front-page headline "A
California County Touches Future of Voting," Seelye reports on the
recent experience of Riverside County, California, with computerized
touch-screen voting. She quotes a retired engineer declaring: "This is
the only way to go. You can't say that I got cheated on my vote." She
describes election-night results coming in "like greased lightning." She
reports that touch-screen systems can easily handle long ballots and
multiple languages.

But nowhere in the story does Seelye discuss a central problem with
such voting systems: They leave no paper trail. She quotes a political
scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asking, "If you
need a recount, what happens?" But the question is left hanging like a
three-corner chad.

How can the nation's leading newspaper, after what we've just been
through, give front-page play to the wonders of touch-screen voting and
not get around to messy little details about recounts and contested
elections and high-stakes manipulation? Maybe the editors haven't been
reading their own op-ed page. Just a week before Seelye's report, the
Times published an argument by Princeton University researcher
Edward Tenner on "The Perils of High-Tech Voting." Tenner made the case
that paperless electronic systems "multiply possibilities for
tampering." It's true that financial institutions have ways of auditing
touch-screen ATM transactions, Tenner noted, but no one has figured out
how to create similarly verifiable records for electronic voting that
would protect the secrecy of the ballot.

National reporters have no excuse for being behind the curve on such
matters: Evidence has been mounting for more than a decade that U.S.
elections are plagued by technological breakdowns. There are local
reporters all around the country who have witnessed firsthand the
inaccuracies of punch-card systems and the uncertainties of
court-decided hand recounts. And in a prescient report by investigative
reporter Ronnie Dugger published by The New Yorker in 1988, almost
all of the now-famous problems seen in Florida were forecast. "Is the
most widely used computerized system, the Votomatic, which relies on
computer punch-card ballots, disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of
voters?" Dugger asked. His report made clear that it was--and that
discarded ballots tended to be more prevalent in minority districts. He
further reported that in "direct-recording electronic" systems (such as
touch-screens) "recounts are impossible, for the program destroys the
electronic record of each voter's choices the instant after it counts
them." Such technology raises important questions about how computer
programming might be used to alter election results in ways that would
be difficult, if not impossible, to detect.

With former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter now on board to
lead a new National Commission on Federal Election Reform, and with
multiple bills in Congress designed to improve elections, such questions
are due for a thorough public airing. So isn't it time that the national
press got up to speed on this story?