Help the voter: It's time to address electronic voting problems

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The Democratic takeover of Congress has opened up a world of possibilities, and one of those concerns a piece of urgent business still left undone. This isn't -- or at least shouldn't be -- a liberal or conservative issue but one about shared values concerning the American system and good government.

In 2002, as a result of the presidential election fiasco two years earlier in Florida, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which promised to eliminate problems like hanging chads by mandating electronic voting machines that meet uniform federal standards. The Nov. 7 election was the first great test.

The result was far from encouraging. Although Allegheny County experienced minor problems, The New York Times reported that tens of thousands of voters in more than 25 states encountered serious problems at the polls. One of the most disturbing episodes occurred in Sarasota County, Fla., where 18,000 voters supposedly did not make a choice in a congressional race decided, at least for the reflexively gullible, by 369 votes.

Although nothing so alarming occurred in Pennsylvania, the state wasn't without problems. In this area, long lines developed in Westmoreland County after machines developed problems. Local advocates for the handicapped also complained that their needs were not adequately met.

As a further argument against local complacency, the touch-screen machines used in Sarasota --the ES&S iVotronic -- are from the same vendor chosen by a number of Western Pennsylvania counties, including Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland.

If these machines had a paper trail, all suspicions would be moot. But as the Post-Gazette's Jerome Sherman reported from Washington this week, Pennsylvania is one of a shrinking number of states that don't require electronic voting machines to have a visible paper backup. The Rendell administration has shown no leadership on this issue and the Legislature has not moved a bill to address the problem.

This negligent behavior makes no sense in a nation that is, sad to say, heir to a culture of electoral cheating to which both parties have contributed historically. In places such as Britain, independent civil servants can be trusted to make sure elections can't be fixed.

In the United States, individual counties such as Allegheny strive to be efficient and fair, but the system overall is under the direction of political figures. On these shores, a system of verifying votes is the only sensible option. That is especially true now that elections are tabulated by computers that many experts have warned are at risk of being manipulated in ways that defy easy detection.

Voter-verified paper trails are the remedy -- and in this regard the Help America Vote Act needs help from Congress. In January, the Rendell administration and the state Legislature also should show that they are willing partners in the effort to make sure that every vote counts.


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