Good news from the General Assembly's Joint Select Committee on Electronic Voting Systems. After studying the disasters--real and imaginable--that took place on election day in North Carolina (See "Who Won? Who Knows." Jan. 19), the committee recommended solutions to the three big problems:
"Lost" votes. In Carteret County, a direct-record (touchscreen) voting machine decided it was "full" and, though it counted 4,438 more voters thereafter, it didn't record any more votes. When less than 2,300 votes separated the two candidates for state agriculture commissioner, this became a huge problem (though, at length, the trailer, Democrat Britt Cobb, conceded rather than belabor the issue). The obvious answer: every touchscreen vote should produce its own "paper trail," or ballot, that the voter can check for accuracy and that is thereafter retained by election officials just in case. "The committee finds," its report says, "that the critics of pure direct-record electronic voting systems--'black-box voting,' as they call it--have raised enough legitimate questions ... that a requirement that all voting systems be reducable to paper is a necessity."
"Hacked" votes. Paper ballots would also assure that votes aren't stolen in any of the colorful ways suggested by computer-security experts who testified before the committee. Could somebody with access to the software that controls a direct-record electronic machine program it to switch every 20th vote for Smith over to Jones, for example? Yes, the experts say. What's more, (s)he could write the offending code so it disappears after the dirty work is done. But hand-counting a random sample of the paper-trail ballots would catch the problem, if not necessarily the culprit. Thus, the committee calls for sample hand-counts in every county where electronic machines are used; in close elections, all recounts would include not just another run through the counting machines but hand-counting of at least 3 percent of the precincts--and if any problems show up, all of the ballots would be recounted by hand.
"Unwanted" votes. Do you ever wonder whether the politicians really want you to vote? If so, why do they limit voting to 13 hours on a single Tuesday in November and at a specific location near your home that may, however, be nowhere near where you actually are that day? Absentee and "early" voting--at polling places open for a couple of weeks prior to election day--help a lot: One-third of North Carolinians voted early in 2004. Unaccountably, however, the early-voting sites close up on the three days before Election Day. The upshot of that is another sort of fiasco: On Nov. 2, at least 11,000 registered voters who showed up at the wrong precinct (but in the right county) were allowed to cast so-called "provisional votes," only to have the state Supreme Court rule a week ago that votes cast in the wrong place are illegal. What? Isn't every "early" vote also cast outside the "proper precinct"? Well, yes they are--but the Supreme Court, reading our election laws in as pinched a fashion as possible, says that early votes cast out of precinct are OK but Election Day provisionals aren't. State Elections Director Gary Bartlett argues that with electronic voting, the whole idea of voting only in your proper precinct is outmoded, since computers can be programmed to provide you with the right ballot wherever you vote as long as your registration data is up to date. Thus, the committee recommends experimenting in the '05 and '06 elections with "convenient" voting, meaning anyone registered in a given county could vote at any location in that county over a period of several weeks before or on Election Day.
The committee also decided that the companies marketing electronic voting machines in North Carolina need to get over the idea that their software is proprietary--i.e., secret--and share it with state elections officials and representatives of the "legally recognized political parties" (Libertarians too!) prior to being allowed to sell it to the counties.
All of these recommendations require enactments by the General Assembly before taking effect.