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Our election crisis - a blessing in disguise?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, November 29, 2004

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How does it feel to be right in the middle of one of the world's most important and most interesting election recount crises?

We cannot rely on voting machines that do not leave a "paper trail".

No. I am not talking about the controversy that has threatened to break apart the Ukraine and perhaps raise the ghost of the Cold War. Nor do I have in mind Florida and the hanging chads the 2000 election.

I am thinking about the still undetermined result in the race for North Carolina's Commissioner of Agriculture.

Just in case you have not been following this saga as it is being reported on the back pages of our newspapers, here is a little background. In latest count, the incumbent commissioner, Democrat Britt Cobb, trails his Republican challenger, Steve Troxler, by about 2300 votes-out of more than 3 million total votes cast.

Ordinarily, assuming the results hold up after the count is completely checked, Troxler would be pronounced the winner, notwithstanding the close results. And following the lead of President Bush, Troxler could declare he now has a mandate to do whatever he thinks needed to be done.

But something out of the ordinary happened. Because of a voter machine problem in Carteret County, more than 4000 votes were not counted.

"Why don't they just run the ballots through the machine again?" you might ask. At least that is what you would ask if you did not already know that the computer voting machines in Carteret are "paperless" machines. The voters note their preferences on a computer screen and the results are tabulated and stored. No paper record is made. So there is no way to check the machines' accuracy in ordinary circumstance. Nor, is there any way to determine the voters' choices when the machine fails.

With 4000 votes missing and only 2300 votes separating the candidates in the Commissioner of Agriculture's race, there is no certain winner. So what happens next? It is up to the state Board of Elections. The board has a seemingly impossible task of coming up with a decision that will be fair, practical, and legal.

It could call for a new statewide election. This would be expensive and, no doubt, voter turnout would be light. Republicans are skeptical, citing the expense and arguing that, since Carteret County leans Republican, most of the 4000 lost ballots were probably marked for Troxler.

The Board of Elections is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans. It takes four votes to order to order a new election. Whatever the Board does will probably be challenged and wind up in the North Carolina Supreme Court, which, by the way, is dominated by Republican justices.

A long delay in determining the winner could disrupt the work of the Department of Agriculture and the lives of its employees for months. It could extend for all of us the partisan bitterness that should begin to heal on the day after the election.

It could have been much worse. What if the governor's race had been just as close as the commissioner's? Or, what if the presidential race in North Carolina had been close and our state (rather that Ohio or Florida) had been the key to victory? The whole country would have been in limbo because of the failure of the voting machines in Carteret County.

But this mess and these potential messes could make for a long-term blessing for us in North Carolina-and for every other place where citizens select their leaders by ballot.

The more attention our "mess" gets, the clearer it will be that we cannot rely on voting machines that do not leave a "paper trail" to confirm the voters' choices.

Machines fail. Computers crash. Humans can break into and manipulate the codes that run voting machines.

Our election mess proves the point dramatically. By demonstrating so vividly the consequences of relying solely on computer machinery, the current "mess" demands prompt action from our board of elections to protect our future. From now on, the board's standards should prohibit the use of any computer based voting machines that do not leave a "paper trail" that can reviewed when there is a controversy.

Elections officials across the country should then follow North Carolina's lead.

If they don't, the people of America should, like the people of Ukraine, take to the streets.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or . He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. Bookwatch is taking a break during UNC-TV's Winterfest special programming. It returns December 19, when Sharyn McCrumb author of Ghost Riders will be the guest.

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