Monday, January 7, 2008

The Return to Paper Ballots: Solution or New Problems?

As Presidential candidates continue to lobby for support, potential problems with electronic voting equipment continues to be discovered and/or discussed. While security concerns have been previously raised over this equipment, the fact that the Presidential election is just under ten months away has raised the additional problems that any proposed remedies for these problems may not be remedied in time.

In Ohio and Colorado, officials have discovered that machines may be affected by the use of a magnet or PDA. In Colorado, the state has already taken the measure of decertifying a number of voting machines, including machines located in Denver. In Ohio, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has proposed eliminating touch-screens and returning to paper ballots; if the Republican-controlled state legislature disagrees with this proposal, Brunner’s next step may be to work with the Board of Voting Machine Examiners to decertify the faulty electronic voting equipment. Other states such as California have already returned to paper ballots.

Paper ballots had originally been replaced due to problems such as the “hanging chads” in Florida in the 2000 election. The federal government had provided grants to states to research and replace these ballots with electronic voting equipment. Colorado has spent $41 million in grants on such an endeavor while and Ohio has spent approximately $81 million. Not only would the government grant money perhaps be seen as “wasted”, but it would cost Ohio an additional $31 million for a new system, as well as approximately $250,000 for each county (based on previous Presidential elections in which paper ballots were used) to supply voters with the paper ballots.

Even if this is the only solution in Ohio, as the Secretary of State suggests, the cost of such a change is not the only issue. As it currently stands in Ohio, there will still be two systems used in the Ohio primary election – the touch-screen and paper ballots. With the existence of both systems operating concurrently, election officials and poll workers will be relied upon to monitor and be trained in both systems. As evidenced in previous elections and in the studies leading up to the implementation of the use of touch-screens, there have been and continue to be problems with the use of this technology; whether problems exist due to purposeful tampering or accidents (such as power failures) or lack of training (on the part of poll workers or the voters), these problems are clearly not under control yet. Many more are familiar with the paper ballots, but Florida in 2000 has demonstrated problems with this system; additionally, paper ballots may lead to a need for increased time in completing the ballot, leading to larger lines, leading to many voters leaving without voting.

The ACLU has stated that the problem with such a change in Ohio may not be evident in the primary election as there is expected to be a lower turnout. However, the election in November will most likely have a large turnout for which the polling locations may not be adequately prepared. Even with the election just under ten months away, it is uncertain that an adequate system can be in place in time.

There are flaws to be expected whenever a new technology or system is set into place. However, in a case where such a fundamental aspect of our democratic government is involved, and the federal government has provided assistance in addressing the issue, it would be hoped that a reasonable system with minimal flaws could be discovered. Still, these problems persist, and not just in Ohio. Until such polling place issues are remedied, I believe my best option is to take advantage of Ohio’s no-excuse absentee voting policy and hope my ballot doesn’t get lost in the mail.

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