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Why should I care about voting machines?

By John Bonitz
Posted Monday, January 2, 2006

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Silk Hope, NC - Here in Chatham County we vote on good-ol reliable paper ballots, which are then counted by a mechanical optical scanner device. For many years this has been our system. The machines are old and expensive to maintain, but people know them and trust them. Plus you've got durable paper ballots to recount, if need be.

Federal law (the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA) requires that we purchase new machines. So, our Board of Elections is shopping for new machines. The forum on Wednesday will be a demonstration of these new machines. Three kinds of machines will be shown:

1) Computerized "touch-screen" machines, also known as Direct Record Electronic (DRE) voting machines (which records your ballot on electrons);
2) A new Optical Scan ballot counting device (you record your own ballot on a piece of paper); and
3) Automark ballot marking device, which helps the blind, stroke-afflicted, or those with motor skill afflications, paralysis, etc., to mechanically mark a paper ballot. This paper ballot is then counted in an Optical Scan machine.

The funny thing is that most computer scientists say that paper ballots are the only reliable way to vote. Justin Moore, a computer scientist at Duke University, says he could never trust voting on a computer. He just knows too much about how easily they fail. Chuck Herrin, a "white-hat-hacker" from Winston-Salem (and a staunch Republican) hates computer voting machines. He once showed me how easy it is to hack into a Diebold GEMS vote tabulator. I don't know much about computers, but I understood it. I was stunned to realize how little skill it would take to manipulate thousands of votes with a few keystrokes.

But let's put aside conspiracy theories for a moment. Computerized voting is still not trustworthy: In Carteret County last year, a DRE computer voting machine lost more than 4,500 ballots. Poof. Gone.

Irretrievably. Four thousand and five hundred people's votes were lost forever because the ballots were only recorded on electrons. The state of California recently rejected Diebold voting machines because of a 20% failure rate. 20% is one out of five votes.


The wonderful thing is that paper ballots and Optical Scan machines are cheaper than DRE computer voting machines! If Chatham County buys the DRE computer voting machines, we'll have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars of our tax-paid money. If we choose Optical Scan machines, the grant funds should cover all (or almost all) of the cost.

Please feel free to email me or call if you would like to learn more about this important issue.

I hope everyone who votes in Chatham County will attend the Board of Elections Forum on Wednesday night (6:30 to 8pm) in the Pittsboro Ag Building Basement.

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Why should I care about voting machines?