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Does your vote really count?

Image: electronic voting machines
Sharon Franz, right, votes at one of five electronic voting machines, as over a 100 people stand in an two hour line to cast their ballots on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Feb. 5, 2008. George Frey / AP
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After the contentious presidential election of 2000, public concern over the voting process gave rise to the creation and adoption of the 2002 Help America Vote Act. That bill resulted in the push for replacing old voting machines with electronic voting machines, and the nation now casts its votes on the updated electronic machines. However, these voting machines have been berated by critics as unreliable, inaccurate, easily hacked and unable to be audited.

The machines manufactured by companies such as the Sequoia Voting Systems, which was bought in March 2005 by the Smartmatic Corporation, votes electronically on a computer chip that is removed from the voting machine at the end of the election. A paper tape in the machine records the number of votes but does not have the capability of storing an individual record of each vote cast, and so there is no audit trail through which votes can be later verified.

Sometimes, the security of the machines’ software has been determined to be inadequate and unreliable by public advocates and numerous legislative representatives. The main complaints are that the machines are easily hacked and have not been tested for accuracy.

New Jersey was among the first of more than a dozen states that filed litigation over the voting machine security flaws. The plaintiffs are asking the court to review the constitutionality of the machines and require the state to cease the use of the untrustworthy voting machines.

In the meantime, the New Jersey State Legislature adopted a statute requiring for a voter verified paper trail, but the state’s Attorney General has stated that it would be difficult to comply with the legislation by this year’s presidential election. Based on that, an extension until June has been granted, but advocates such as attorney Penny Venetis, who filed the case against New Jersey, is worried that the state may try to upgrade the current computers instead of replacing them. A trial is set for April in order to resolve the complaint.

Accuracy becomes imperative
Not surprisingly 20 states have opted to do away with these machines and replace them with optical scanners that record and scan each ballot individually as they are cast. Because the margin of victory in many elections has been won by a very small number of votes, accuracy becomes imperative. Right now, municipalities within New Jersey are unable to certify primary results due to the errors in turnout totals. It begs the question of how widespread, both locally and nationally, is the problem with unreliable machines. Many jurisdictions in numerous states do not conduct audits on the vote tallies and, even if a proper audit procedure were available, the results are likely to be inaccurate.

In 2006, Rep. Rush Holt, D–N.J., introduced legislation requiring routine random audits and a voter-verified paper ballot for every vote cast. The bill is still waiting on a vote. With the clock running for the 2008 presidential election, Holt introduced the emergency bill to help ensure accuracy and integrity of the 2008 election. That bill authorizes $500 million to states and individual municipalities that want to opt for paper ballots, and/or conduct audits by hand count.

Eyebrows were raised by advocates against the unreliable machines when The New York Times reported that one of the main manufacturers of the electronic machines in question, Sequoia Voting System, was owned in part by the Venezuelan government, led by President Hugo Chavez. However, the body investigating the matter, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, did not give a formal report on whether the company posed a possible national security risk. The company has stated that in 2005, when financing of the company became public, the Venezuelan government had no further involvement with the company except as a client.

Why is it that manufacturers did not provide for a paper trail of the votes that are cast? Anyone who has ever used a computer knows that, just in case, you should save, back up and print a hard copy of anything important. Apparently, that rule has been disregarded when it comes to your fundamental right to vote. The seminal right that predicates all others is the right to vote and it is a serious matter that cannot be treated as merely another computer glitch.