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Technology: It's time to ditch touch-screen voting for paper ballots 

Dec. 30, 2006 - The Baltimore Sun, By Mike Himowitz

As 2007 rolls in, millions of Americans will have to make what looks like a momentous technical decision: Should they upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Windows? At the same time, legislators and election boards will be pondering a far more important decision: Do we want Microsoft Windows - or any operating system - running elections?

Maryland made headlines by committing $106 million to a voting system based on thousands of Diebold touch-screen electronic terminals. They run a stripped-down version of Windows, but it wouldn't matter if they ran Linux or some other system. Computers shouldn't be responsible for recording and counting votes without a verifiable backup.

Fortunately, national sentiment is turning in the right direction. And the Maryland General Assembly seems amenable to change.

Let's make sure that the system we buy is as simple, accurate and secure as we can make it.

My nominee: paper ballots read by optical scanners. It's a low-tech solution, but one that voters used happily for many years.

Maryland and other states bought into the new slick but unverifiable systems after the 2000 presidential election fiasco. Computer-security experts and activists raised an alarm, but for years, state election officials branded them as kooks and troublemakers.

Years of well-documented problems in California, Ohio, Georgia and other venues have vindicated the critics. Recently, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded that electronic voting without a paper trail or some other validation system outside a machine's own software is unacceptable.

Why? It's no different than letting election officials take boxes of paper ballots into a back room where nobody's allowed to watch, telling voters, "Trust us."

A subcommittee of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has endorsed the need for paper trails or other independent verification.

Assuming that we want a paper trail, we can use touch-screen terminals to generate a paper ballot, or at least a printed record that voters can verify and that could serve as an alternative to the electronic count in case of disputes.

This approach has one strength: It uses a touch-screen terminal. As unreliable and unsecure as they may be, voters like them and understand them.

The problem is the pesky printers we'd have to hook up to those terminals. Right now, there aren't many available, and most are untested.

We had a perfectly good system before, and it's time to return. Scanned paper ballots have been around for decades. The machines that read them are hardly exotic technology - studies show that they're actually more reliable than hand counting.

Instead of thousands of electronic terminals - each one a potential point of failure - a paper system requires one or two scanners per polling place. If one breaks down, you can store the ballots in a lockbox until a new one arrives.

For scanning, ballots have to be printed on heavy, expensive paper, with special ink. Then they have to be kept in secure warehouses and trucked to the polls on election day. That costs lots of money, and we have to pay it upfront every time we have an election.

My response: so what? This is the cost of democracy. Ours works because people are willing to put up with losing - as long as they think they're getting an honest and accurate count. Their faith was severely shaken in 2000, and again in 2004.

Mike Himowitz can be reached at

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