Will history repeat itself?

With the November presidential elections little more than seven months away, there is concern about how citizens’ votes will be recorded. In question is the credibility of electronic voting and touch screen voting systems in particular.

Having only recently been certified for use in Florida in 2001, electronic voting is still in its infancy and has been the subject of speculation about whether it will create problems in the 2004 presidential elections. Critics of electronic voting have singled out a lack of paper receipts, fraud, machine malfunctions, hackers and communication as areas that threaten the integrity of election results.

To help quell the complaints that have been expressed about electronic voting, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, introduced legislation that would require computerized voting systems to provide a paper record, ensuring that voters can verify their votes and that a paper record be available in case of a manual recount.

The Restore Elector Confidence in Our Representative Democracy (RECORD) Act requires a voter-verifiable paper record so that each and every voter will be able to confirm that his or her vote was accurately cast and recorded.

“The election this November is going to be one of the most important of our lifetime and every pundit in America said it will be close because we are still so divided,” said Clinton in a news release from the U.S. Senate. “If we have huge problems again, people will fundamentally lose confidence in our democracy and in their vote. We cannot let that happen. This legislation is good insurance against that risk.”

The bill will provide $5 million to the Electronic Assistance Commission to help implementation and verification systems and improved security measures. Additionally, $2 million would be given to the National Institute of Standards and Technology to help state and local governments with voter verification and the security of electronic voting machines. The bill would also require random recounts of at least 2 percent of all ballots in all jurisdictions in each state and 2 percent of the ballots of military and overseas voters to verify system accuracy.

Although many people are in favor of paper records for voting, one group, the sight-impaired community, believes the initiative takes away their right to have a private vote.

“The disabled community is very upset about it, especially the sight-impaired community, because they feel like the touch screens allow them to basically have a secret ballot for the first time because the machines talk to you and you push the buttons. I know that it is very important, but now all of a sudden it is like a step backward in the world of equality, to all of a sudden have to have someone looking at how you voted again. And so they are going to fight it like crazy, and they are probably going to file lawsuits about it,” said Susan MacManus, a USF political science professor.

There is optimism that the RECORD Act will pass in time for the 2004 presidential elections, but there are concerns about verifying equipment and having the machines ready in time.

“Buying a voting system is not like going out and buying a car. You just don’t have the options out there or the freedom to go buy what you want to buy,” said Kurt Browning, the elections supervisor in Pasco County and the main speaker for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. “Before any voting system is used in Florida, it has to meet federal standards. It’s also tested by independent testing authorities.”

Browning said electronic voting machines must go through rigorous testing at the federal level as well as in the state. In particular, Florida has one of the highest voting system standards in the nation, even more stringent than the federal government.

Because of the high standards in Florida, only two systems are used for electronic voting, Election Systems and Software and Sequoia. Florida does not use the Diebold voting systems, which have been the target of much criticism.

“Diebold is not a certified voting system in Florida. What happens is these folks that are nay-sayers on touch screen have used a huge, broad brush, when they have painted all touch screen or Direct Record Electronics systems as being prone to all kinds of fraud,” Browning said.

Another one of the concerns that voters have about electronic voting is hackers. According to Browning, this concern is unfounded because the electronic voting machines are not networked, nor are they hooked up to the Internet.

“We have no centralized election system. I think that is our biggest strength and it’s also one of biggest problems because we don’t have standardization,” said Patrick Manteiga, a publisher and writer for La Gaceta, a trilingual newspaper.

Mantiega said he is not so worried about the machines but about the people.

“I believe that everybody’s vote is going to count. What worries me is that perhaps we don’t have the education to be able to use the machines properly, and because of that we might not get our vote counted,” Manteiga said.

Manteiga said he believes the language used in voting procedures is the problem. Much of the language that is used in the procedures can be very complex and when translated into another language, such as Spanish, it can become even more complex.

“A ballot in Spanish, a lot of times, is very bad because we start off with bad English. Now you change bad English in to bad Spanish and it gets worse,” Manteiga said.

Although there is much concern about the electronic voting systems and the language used to educate voters about the systems, the hope is that people don’t lose faith in the system and that people go out to vote on Election Day.

“The fact of the matter is when people, in particularly our older voters, start hearing this stuff about system’s not being accurate and your vote doesn’t count, what are they going to do? They are going to stay home,” Browning said. “Now who does that benefit? It doesn’t benefit anyone, nor does it benefit our system. It is a horrible cycle that we have started to devolve into, because when folks start being told that the system is crooked, your vote doesn’t count, these systems can be fixed, and that they can be rigged, all that does is discourage people,” Browning said.