So many things about the way we vote are out of date. For example, why do we vote on a Tuesday? Why do we let the legislators draw their own districts? But there's one oldie-but-goldie voting method that's never been improved upon: the paper ballot. You mark it yourself, you put it in the box, or nowadays into the electronic tabulator, and if at the end of the day there's any question which candidate(s) got the most votes, just get out the ballots and count 'em again.
That's what they did last Friday in Wake County. The Republican primary in House District 40 was a cliffhanger, with incumbent Rick Eddins getting 3,069 votes and challenger David Robinson 3,020. So county election officials went to work and recounted. The result: Eddins, 3,069, Robinson, 3,020. And if you doubt it, the actual ballots are still there for your inspection.
Paper ballots certainly haven't been improved upon by the advent of touchscreen voting machines that produce no ballot at all, but rather spit out a tally of the touches using software programs that are both secret ("proprietary") and error-prone.
By now, you must've read about Diebold, the Ohio-based company that makes touchscreen machines, whose chairman is a Republican fund-raiser for President Bush and who personally guaranteed that Bush will carry Ohio in November. You've read about Election Systems and Software (ES&S), whose machine-crashes managed to wipe out any audit trail of the 2002 gubernatorial primaries in Florida.
Oh, yes. Florida. After the hanging chads and the machines that gave thousands of Al Gore's votes to Pat Buchanan four years ago (by mistake, honest), Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) that was supposed to "restore our confidence." Are you shocked to learn that HAVA isn't funded, and the states are stumbling into the 2004 elections only marginally better-equipped than before?
Companies selling touchscreen machines have rushed into the breach, pitching paperless voting as the economical answer to punch-out chads and voting levers that don't line up correctly, a la Buchanan. Thus, most of the 115 million votes cast for president this year will be recorded the touchscreen way, more than half on ES&S machines alone.
Touchscreens, or DRE's for short ("direct recording electronic") have their advantages. One machine can be programmed to present the many different ballots that are used within a single voting precinct (that screwy districts lines thing), and in different languages. Blind voters like them because they can be rigged with headphones, audio instructions and raised voting buttons.
But they have one big disadvantage, as election-reform activists have forced election officials around the country to acknowledge. The software can be tampered with, to skip or miscount some votes. Or, it can crash, losing votes. The second kind of problem is at least recognizable. The first isn't--some Georgians are still convinced that Republican programmers stole the 2002 Senate election from Democratic incumbent Max Cleland, who was even in the election-eve polls but lost badly on Election Day.
"Programming errors are an inevitable fact of life given current technology," says a group called VerifiedVoting.org, which was founded by a Stanford University computer science professor and includes election officials and technical experts from all over the country. Worse, they say, "with these paperless DRE machines, there is nothing that can stop a determined group from achieving large-scale election theft."
The critics have forced DRE sellers to add printers to their machines in enough places that some 60 million touchscreen votes this fall will have a "paper trail"--a receipt (aka, a ballot), that is, that the voter can inspect before submitting it for possible recount purposes.
But that leaves some 35 million touchscreen votes that won't have a paper trail, according to ex-journalist Ronnie Dugger, head of a reform group called the Alliance for Democracy. Some, sadly, will be in North Carolina, where the State Board of Elections has taken the position that the DRE machines are reliable and that state law prohibits using a supplemental paper ballot because it would result in two sets of votes--one electronic, the other on paper--with no way of telling, if they differ, which one is right.
Efforts by progressives like state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, to get that law changed in the recent General Assembly session went nowhere. Legislators did establish a study commission to look at the issue, but it won't be heard from until January. Meanwhile, a bill in Congress that would require all DRE's to have a paper trail is stalled, too.
There are 7,000 DRE's in use here, mainly in Guilford and Mecklenburg counties. None, though, are used in the Triangle. Wake County tried one two years ago on an experimental basis but got rid of it after it failed to record any votes at a site where 700 people had signed in.
Cherie Poucher, the Wake elections board director, still thanks her lucky stars it was an early-voting site, giving her staffers time to mail and call everybody who thought they'd voted and tell them, sorry, try again. "We drove all over the county delivering ballots," she says.
Poucher says she still can't sleep the night before a recount, even though--with Wake's optical-scan machines--the votes have never changed at all. But everyone else watching the Eddins-Robinson recount could relax. Here's what we saw:
First, the Optiscan machines read most of the ballots, just like they did on election night. Any discrepancy in a precinct's totals would result in a manual recount, but there were no discrepancies.
Second, a lot of voters didn't fill out their ballots correctly, and the machines can't read them. So the three county election officials do. In every case, though, the voters' intentions were clear. They'd check-marked candidates instead of connecting the right lines, say, or circled them, or drawn their own lines.
But there was never a doubt how they'd voted, and every vote was accounted for, right there, on paper, where you could read it. That's a nice feeling, one everybody should have come November.