Voting Machines Get More Than Reasonable Doubt

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 6:49 PM EST

The ongoing investigation into the disappearance of 18,000 votes in Sarasota, Florida--more than the 369 votes needed to give the November election to Democrat Christine Jennings rather than Republican Vern Buchanan who has been declared winner--is a preview of future debates about electronic voting. And it's not especially reassuring.

The background: Christine Jennings filed suit shortly after the election claiming that an electronic malfunction occurred in Sarasota, where a full 15 percent of voters did not vote in her hotly contested congressional race, compared to 2.5 percent in other Florida districts. Thousands of Sarasota voters have claimed that the race was not on the electronic ballot they were provided. Some have also suggested that their votes simply disappeared.

The state has responded by staging a mock election this Tuesday, in which state employees were the only voters. The employees easily found the Jennings-Buchanan race on the ballot. They admitted, though, it was on the same screen with the gubernatorial race, which featured a larger banner.

Now, even if the only issue was the larger banner, why is it so hard to design a ballot in which voters proceed systematically through all of the races? What's more, anyone who's ever called the office IT guy over to fix their computer only to watch the computer perform perfectly for him knows that computers don't give uniform results to the same prompt. That would be especially true if the voting machines had been programmed to alter the vote tally, as some opponents of electronic voting fear.

Florida's handling of the problem assumes that voting machines are innocent until proven guilty. But machines aren't citizens. The citizens are saying they were unable to vote in the race. What will it take to make people get serious about these problems?

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