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Analysts wary of e-voting

Elections officials should heed warnings from computer experts that new voting machines could produce worse results than hanging chads, local elections analysts said Thursday.

“The new technology is fast and we all know computers are supposed to solve all our problems,” said Doug Pibel, an editor with the Bainbridge-based YES! Magazine, who has written extensively about electronic voting. “But (computers) are also good at (giving us) glitches and inexplicable outcomes.”

Pibel was part of a forum on the future of electronic voting in Kitsap County held at the Poulsbo public library.

Hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap, the event also featured Kitsap County Elections Manger Dolores Gilmore and VotersUnite! co-founder John Gideon.

Many computer professionals warn that “Direct Recording Electronic” voting equipment is a dangerous substitute for systems that have a paper trail, Pibel said. The new technologies, often using touch screens, are susceptible to manipulation and error and could produce larger recount problems than the nation faced in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, he said.

The Kitsap County auditor may shift to DRE technologies by 2006 to comply with a federal mandate making poll voting compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Gilmore stresses that whatever technology the auditor’s office chooses, the system will be rigorously tested.

“We’re not set with a particular DRE machine,” she said. “We’re open to what’s out there.”

But Gideon, who has testified before the state Legislature on behalf of his nonprofit elections watchdog organization, said the auditor’s office has already made risky decisions. He charges that the office rushed software upgrades in preparation for the new primary system.

“The changes were not federally certified or inspected and did not allow for an audit,” he said. Voters will never know if the upgrade contained bugs or added features that would influence the September election count, he added.

Gilmore said her office had little time to prepare for the new primary’s requirements, but that the upgrade was tested for defects.

Pibel said elections officials often take manufacturers’ claims about voting technology at face value. He warned that profit-motivated companies may not always have voters’ interests in mind.

Two corporations that produce almost all voting machines in the U.S. have strong ties to the Bush administration, Pibel said.

A letter to Republican donors penned by the CEO of Diebold Inc., one of three companies certified to sell electronic voting equipment in Ohio, expressed a commitment “to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.”

Enlisting NASA or government intelligence agencies to produce voting technology would help ensure quality and security, Pibel said. But, he added, some old fashioned methods are still a good option.

“We could also go with hand-counting paper ballots,” he said. “It’s worked for the last couple hundred years. Our system is not nearly as broken as it’s been made to seem – let’s not fix it that much.”

A state rule requiring a paper trail for new elections technology expires in mid-November. Unless lawmakers renew the rule, voters may have limited backup if new technology goes awry.

Gilmore said relying entirely on mail-in ballots, as Oregon does, would streamline the elections system and ensure paper-based verification.

“If the state of Washington had all voting done by mail, all officials would be saying ‘Yes!’” she said. “It would simplify matters greatly.”

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