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Friday, April 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist
Lose the paranoia about electronic voting


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All of the apocalyptic talk about the perils of electronic voting brings to mind my good friend John, one of the sanest people I know.

On the cusp of the millennium, this weary information-technology analyst muttered about "guns, gold and groceries" to survive the coming collapse.

He was working so hard to get data systems and networks past the Y2K rollover, he caught a mild strain of the computer virus of the time — paranoia.

Well, no planes fell from the sky, power grids did not blink off and none of us woke to open rebellion by the imbedded chips in our coffeemakers and automobiles. Nothing much happened because of vigilant efforts to avoid problems, and because the imagined troubles were overblown.

As America moves toward a new way of casting ballots, the prospect of change combined with reliance on technology puts a whiff of paranoia back in the air.

After the 2000 Florida debacle, raising doubts about the integrity of the election process is as easy as Key lime pie.

Congress subsequently directed the replacement of punch-card ballots, redolent of hanging chad. Familiar optical-scan systems that read marked ballots are on their way out, too.

The replacements are user-friendly, direct-recording electronic touchscreens. Every polling place in the nation must have at least one by 2006.

Critics are finding whole new careers with conspiracy theories about ways electronic voting can be invaded and invalidated. One doyen of disaster is a Renton woman who has not bothered to vote for anything since November 2000, according to election records through 2003.

Beware of the hype. Smart people of good faith can manage change.

Snohomish County has made touchscreen voting work in every election since September 2002.

Electronic voting has a future because it is versatile and easy to use: Touch next to a candidate's name on the TV-like screen.

Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger said electronic voting eliminates the issue at the heart of the Florida recount disputes: discerning voter intention.

Double votes do not register. Undervotes — races left blank with no mark — are highlighted and voters prompted about the omission. Vote summaries and final, final reminders are offered before a ballot is cast.

Touchscreens can be modified for people with sight or hearing impairments and physical disabilities. They can be programmed with ballots in foreign languages. In a country with an increasingly diverse voting population, and dwindling participation, electronic voting offers flexibility to attract more people to the polls.

Terwilliger paid $5,000 each for 1,000 voting machines and the software that runs them. Savings on election costs are paying for the system. No other Washington county uses electronic voting, though Yakima and Klickitat are exploring the idea.

Each machine is a stand-alone unit, not networked to other machines, or connected to a phone line or the Internet or capable of being accessed by wireless technology.

The software, which is used elsewhere in the nation, has been independently tested and is certified by Washington's secretary of state, who maintains a list of approved systems county auditors can choose among.

Before an election, the county is broken down into routes, and machines are programmed for local issues and races. Each machine is staff tested in a process open to the public and party officials.

Machines are sealed until days prior to the election, when logic and accuracy tests are run. Party officials vote on machines loaded with all versions of the ballots. Optical-scan machines are tested. Results are printed and saved.

Logic and accuracy tests are run again before actual ballot results are tabulated. The same tests are run post-election. A county security specialist outside the auditor's office runs the tests again.

Given the multiplicity of tests and unpredictable nature of the ballot contents and timing of the reviews, tampering — internally or externally — seems remote.

Each machine generates a paper audit trail, but not the voter-verifiable paper trail that is "Topic A" in the industry. For that matter, no current voting system produces a duplicate paper record.

Snohomish County's electronic system has stood the test with voters and candidates in recounts of squeaker 2003 races for county assessor and Montlake Terrace City Council.

Terwilliger has shown that most of what critics fear can be managed. Security issues are real, but not insurmountable. Not unlike getting past Y2K.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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