Nobody - except perhaps pure sadists and Electoral College junkies - wants a repeat of the 2000 election fiasco, in which the presidency hung by a chad and Americans' faith in the system fluttered on the wings of a butterfly ballot.
That should be especially true in Ohio, which some political observers say is the likely candidate to be the Florida of 2004 - the hotly contested, deciding state in a razor-close election.
Spurred by public outcry, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which instituted various voter registration and balloting reforms. Most important, it affirmed that America had decided punch cards are too fallible to be trusted. Indeed, the first words in HAVA are "To establish a program to provide funds to States to replace punch card voting systems..."
Among the standards HAVA set for their replacements: The system should prevent "overvoting" for too many candidates, which invalidates votes. Voters should be able to go back, check and correct their votes before casting them.
Touch-screen direct recording electronic (DRE) systems emerged as the leading choice. Similar in operation to ATMs, the technology is easy to use and familiar to most voters. They are far more accurate than punch cards. They're already used in 10 percent of the nation's precincts, including Ohio's Franklin County and nearly all of Kentucky, without serious problems.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to ballot reform. The fix has become almost as controversial as the problem - and punch card-using Ohio is at the center of the fuss. Several counties, including Hamilton, and some state lawmakers say voting by DRE is vulnerable to security breaches, can't be verified with a hard-copy "paper trail," and is too unfamiliar to employ on such short notice. They've persuaded the state Controlling Board not to release the funds to buy the machines until at least April 5, the board's next meeting. That has put Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who early on positioned himself as a national leader in election reform, in a real bind.
Blackwell has negotiated contracts with manufacturers, giving counties five new systems to choose from - three DREs and two optical scan systems. But an exhaustive, impartial security analysis Blackwell commissioned, while it set a national standard for states to follow in picking DREs, also discovered flaws in several electronic systems.
His office has not yet certified the fixes, but says the vendors have made them. Meanwhile, many of Ohio's 88 counties have chosen new systems. Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo says 27 counties should have new DREs in operation by November. Another 17 counties - six with older-generation DREs, 11 with optical scan systems - don't need to convert right away.
DRE opponents in Ohio represent an unusual bipartisan coalition. Some Democrats suspect the new technology, especially when it's developed by firms that tend to support the GOP. They want voters to see something tangible on paper that can be verified. They fear the fix is in this fall, citing one top DRE executive's intemperate fund-raising pledge to "deliver" Ohio for President Bush.
They are joined by some Republican leaders who don't mind keeping the status quo. Punch card systems, you see, tend to have the highest (up to 15 percent) voter error rates - and therefore the highest numbers of invalidated votes - in inner-city, minority, heavily Democratic precincts. DREs would virtually eliminate those errors.
Rap No. 1 against electronic voting machines is the worry that they have security flaws that would allow hackers to gain access from the outside and change votes, or let manufacturers or poll workers rig the devices from the inside to produce false results. Such suspicions were fueled when one manufacturer's internal documents and e-mails, discussing security flaws that hadn't been fixed, "found" their way onto the Web - along with source code for the software that runs the system.
But the analyses done for Blackwell documented those flaws thoroughly, and LoParo points out that vendors' contracts with the state become null and void if all the security issues are not corrected.
These are not home PCs vulnerable to every e-mail worm that comes along. They are robust, dedicated machines with internal backup systems and encryption technology to secure the votes that are cast. They are similar to devices such as ATMs that people rely on every day. "Most people are comfortable with trusting their money to ATMs," said Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Elections.
Some critics cite anecdotes of polling woes in the 2002 midterm election - again, principally in Florida - as evidence the systems are flawed. But most of those foul-ups were traced back to incompetent or ill-trained poll workers. This month's Florida primary, using a mix of touch-screen and optical-scan systems, went smoothly.
"I haven't heard much substantive evidence that DREs are causing problems anywhere," Burke said.
Still, many credible computer scientists say DREs and the software that runs them cannot be made foolproof - that vote fraud is possible with electronic systems.
Besides, "But many of the same questions can be raised about current systems," Burke said. "Somebody could jimmy the current system, and we'd have no way of knowing. They could slip extra punch cards into the envelope, and we'd never be able to sort that out."
"Anybody who did that would be acting illegally. It's a crime. It would be the same with DREs. There's a deterrence."
Because of DRE fraud worries, some officials want to require voting machines to produce printouts of ballots cast, which voters then would check and deposit in ballot boxes. But no such system yet exists. Simply plugging printers into DREs would cost more, slow the voting process and cause mechanical problems. Even the League of Women Voters, considered a fair, impartial arbiter of election matters, opposes any such voter-verified "paper trail."
Some systems do offer an internal paper trail that verifies the results but stays inside the machine. They generate a record at the start of election day, and another record at the end of the day.
Even worse is the suggestion in some quarters that voters get a receipt of their vote to take with them. That's an invitation to fraud and abuse, with some people selling their vote or being coerced by, for example, employers or union reps.
One future solution that might satisfy everybody's concerns is a mathematical system in which the vote tallying would be done publicly on the Internet. each voter would get a serial number and an encoded receipt, allowing him not only to verify his own vote online but double-check the entire vote-counting process.
Hamilton County election officials put a new wrinkle in the debate last week when they said they'd need $3 million extra from county commissioners for voting machines.
The allotted federal money will buy 2,612 machines, but election officials say they need 3,962 - one for each 126 voters. It now has one polling booth per 98 voters. "Voters in Hamilton County are used to walking into polling places and not waiting in line to vote," Burke said.
Blackwell's office argues that fewer DREs are needed because they're much faster for voters to use than punch-card devices.
The six Ohio counties already using DREs, LoParo said, average one machine per 242 voters. Franklin County, which has 40 percent more registered voters than Hamilton County, has only 2,904 DREs.
Burke countered that the learning curve for voters and poll workers will slow the process, making more machines necessary.
"But that's where the voter education program comes in," LoParo said, referring to the controversial $15 million media campaign Blackwell has proposed. "It becomes a cheaper proposition to have a focused voter education program up front than to purchase extra systems you won't need in subsequent elections."
The bottom line
If anything should drive this debate, it should be the mantra from Florida during the 2000 recount struggle: Let every vote count. The goal should be to tally voters' choices fairly, completely and accurately. And voters should be able to trust the system.
The best way to reach that goal remains getting rid of punch-card systems. During the last election, 69 Ohio counties used punch cards; 11 used optical scan systems; six used electronic touch pads; two used mechanical lever systems.
Those numbers ought to change drastically by November, because Ohio could tip the balance in a very close presidential race (see below). With so much at stake, Ohio should do everything possible to avoid being heart of it all - all the controversy, that is - in 2004.
Ray Cooklis is assistant editorial page editor for the Enquirer. Contact him at email@example.com, phone (513) 768-8525.
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