Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Counting The Votes

Many California voting officials are complaining right now, primarily because Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified their precious electronic voting machines as being unreliable and insecure. While her decision really didn't leave local voter registrars much time to shift to optical-scan systems, Ms. Bowen really didn't have much choice. The whole dust-up is being examined by the Los Angeles Times in a two-part series, the first of which appeared yesterday.

In a series of controversial decisions last year, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified the vast majority of electronic voting machines in the state, arguing that they were vulnerable to tampering and have defects that could corrupt vote counts.

As a result of her order, about a third of California counties are scrambling to prepare for the Feb. 5 presidential primary, printing millions of paper ballots, acquiring new optical scanners and pressing into service optical scanners normally used to count absentee ballots. ...

Bowen enlisted a team of eminent computer scientists from top laboratories and universities. They were able to hack into every type of voting machine. "People just don't trust them," Bowen said about the electronic machines. "You only have one chance to get an election right."

The systems in Los Angeles County, which already uses paper ballots, and in Orange County were recertified and do not expect major problems.

The obvious complaint, that of wasted millions of dollars by counties trying to comply with the "Help America Vote Act" of 2002, certainly has some merit. But that federal law, passed in response to the dreadful 2002 Florida re-count, was itself flawed in that certain assumptions were made, among them that electronic voting machine manufacturers would provide reliable, tamper-proof machines that would come with open-source code. The assumption, of course, was soon proved to be wrong, as elections and complaints since 2002 have made clear.

The real complaint coming from local officials, however, is that the optical scan system, coupled with the increase use of absentee ballots will take more time to get accurate results on election night and the following days.

In San Bernardino, a test run of paper ballots in November found that optical scanners could count only 10,000 votes per hour. That means it could take more than 17 hours, starting at 10 p.m., to handle the 175,000 votes expected, said Registrar Kari Verjil.

"We will be working all night," she said.


I mean, why is it absolutely necessary to have full results by 11:00 PM election night? One answer is that the networks want an early report so that they can blast the names of winner and losers, can analyze and re-analyze the trend, and can tout their own brilliance in predicting the winners. I think the media has had more than their share in shaping elections. I don't think they deseve another big chunk.

While I've pretty much always been a fan of instant gratification, this is one area where I'd much prefer the officials got it right, not simply got it done fast. I can wait a week if it means that my vote and every other vote actually got counted. If the local voting officials have to accomplish that by tallying each individual vote by hand, then so be it.

All elections are important, especially this one. It's our right as citizens that the vote counting be done accurately, and voting officials should plan on doing just that rather than whining before the ballots even get to them.

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