CAN'T TOUCH THIS 

Paper ballots are an antiquated voting method, but critics say touch-screens are open to abuse

Election reports estimated that more than 20 percent of last year's voters used modern, touch-screen voting machines. It's a percentage that continues to increase with last October's passage of the Help America Vote Act, which provided states with nearly $4 billion to upgrade from prehistoric paper ballots to touch-screen voting.

This year, Bexar County will begin employing electronic voting machines, purchased for $8 million from Election Systems and Software, Inc (ES&S).

Ironically, some of the machines' biggest critics are people who decry the way Florida's paper-ballot confusion put George W. Bush in the White House. Opponents of electronic voting see the lesson of Florida this way: You can't trust the accuracy of paper-ballot

"Who is going to have access to it? Will it just be representatives of that company? Is there an attempt to hijack the whole electoral process?"
- Bob Comeaux, about the vulnerability of electronic voting machines
counts, but at least they leave physical evidence behind. If computerized machines screw up, they argue, no one will ever know.

"My concern is that there won't be a printed record," says Zada True-Courage, a local Democratic Party activist. "People have said to me, 'You don't even get receipts back now when you use ATMs.' But in those cases, you have your monthly bank statements. Here, we don't have anything."

Another local Democratic activist, Bob Comeaux, recalls working on the Walter Mondale campaign of 1984, and watching as a voting scanner was tested with 200 punch-card ballots. He says the scanner needed eight or nine tries before delivering an accurate count. "But in that situation, you have a physical, existing document that you can hold up to the light to see if there's a hanging chad," Comeaux says. "But if we get rid of the actual physical embodiment of that ballot, and all you have is the ability to punch a button on a machine, where is the accountability?"

For voting-machine opponents, simple computer error is actually the most benign scenario. They worry that computer programmers could alter voting results at will, right under the noses of election commissioners.

Author and social critic Thom Hartmann recently raised red flags by establishing a connection between Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) and ES&S, the manufacturers of Nebraska's electronic voting machines (the same company used by Bexar County). Hartmann found that Hagel formerly headed a company that owns ES&S, and he continues to hold a partial interest in the company. In 1996, Hagel recorded stunning upsets in both the primary and general elections. Last year, he was reelected in the biggest landslide in Nebraska history.

"Some people tell me that we can tell exactly what key strokes were done," Comeaux says. "But my question then is: 'Who is going to have access to it? Will it just be representatives of that company? Is there an attempt to hijack the whole electoral process?'"

Cliff Borofsky, Bexar County election administrator, says he's confident that the county's new machines will provide accurate and fast results. "We have tested this system thoroughly," says Borofsky, a target of criticism last November after the county was slow to tabulate its early-voting ballots. "We even downloaded ballot images and ran our own spreadsheet before we tabulated them, and it came out exact. So we're very pleased with that."

Borofsky dismisses the notion that a company such as ES&S would consider tampering with election results. "You have to wonder about the motivation," he says. "Any company found to be doing that would immediately be out of the business and the entire industry. So that doesn't make sense.

"Basically, all the equipment and all the programs have the same flaw: They're all made for honest people. So I think there is a reasonable expectation that the people we hire have been checked out and aren't among those who would do anything of that nature. But one of the reasons we did the checks we did was to make sure."

Borofsky says the new machines will probably not be used for the upcoming May elections, but will definitely be available for the November race. While that gives touch-screen critics time to mobilize their efforts, they don't have much hope of turning county officials around on the issue.

Courage worries that chronic voter apathy will continue to grow, if the election process appears suspect. "Each election sees fewer and fewer people participating," she says. "They think it's a futile effort. And that's a real good way to destroy democracy - to take away the faith and credibility of the voting process." •


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