Will the voting machines be fair?

After the presidential election in 2004, Island County residents will soon see a new type of voting machines slowly making their way into the voting polls.

According to Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair, the type of machines they will see is still up for debate. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 — extended until 2006 — was designed to establish a program to provide funds to states to replace punch card and other outdated voting systems.

The new law provides $3.9 billion to states over the next three years to update machinery, train workers and educate voters, according to Sinclair. Island County could receive approximately $250,000, but the new machines could cost up to $5,000 a piece. That would buy the 24 polling sites in Island County about two Direct Recording Electronic machines each.

In an interview last week, Sinclair pulled out several piles of magazines, each displaying different makes, models and brands of the two broad types of voting machines the county is researching. She said skepticism towards the new machines are bringing many people to voice their concerns to the auditor’s office in Coupeville.

With the introduction of any new system, people are going to be concerned with the different ways in which the system could be tampered, according to Sinclair. In 1984, when Island County went to the punch card ballot system, people were wary of that system, too, with some believing ballots or the programs that read the ballots could be “fixed.”

“I’m not sure that one system is necessarily better than the other,” Sinclair said of the newly designed systems and the older punch card ballots.

Flaws cam be found in either system, she said, but to tamper with a ballot or a particular machine system would be difficult.

“Throwing a national election becomes a hard issue,” Sinclair said.

Since each election has specific specifications — like who and how many are in each race — the possibility of a tamperer knowing the positions of a punch card hole or touch screen position are low. Ballots are even designed to place candidates’ names in different positions in separate precincts.

Sinclair said before each election, voting punch card machines are readied by the auditor’s office, and then tested. Then they test the computer program that reads the punch card ballot for 100 percent accuracy.

In the week prior to the election, Sinclair said personnel from secretary of state’s office visit each county to test their voting machines and computer programs. Only if the machines are found to be accurate are they delivered to voting sites.

The two types of machines being considered to comply with HAVA are the Direct Recording Electronic machine — or a DRE — and the optical scan ballot.

Several DRE machines were borrowed from Snohomish County in February, when Whidbey Island voters to cast their ballots for Sno-Isle Regional Library System levy election. A touch screen allows voters to cast their votes within minutes without ever touching a pin to puncture a chad box. At the same time, the machines leave no paper trail, making a manual vote recount impossible.

On an optical scan ballot a voter pencils in ovals in much the same way a student takes a standardized test. Both the optical scan and DRE systems allow for write in candidates.

Sinclair said many people believe the new machines could be secretly manipulated by the manufacturer, and that the complex variations of the ballot itself could be foreseen. She is skeptical on that issue.

“I don’t know how someone would know that,” she said.

Sinclair is not the only person watching over Island County’s election machinery. Last week, South Whidbey’s Peace and Reconciliation Network met to host a discussion of the accuracy and potential problems with voting machines. Only a handful of people came to talk about what they see as flaws in the machines.

“There’s good reason to be concerned after the 2000 election,” said South Whidbey resident Jane Klassen.

In 2000, up to 90,000 Florida voters were not able to cast their votes due to problems ranging from “spoiled ballots” to being incorrectly identified as felons and being removed from voting rolls.

Every person at the meeting admitted they currently vote by mail-in absentee ballot.

The trend to cast a vote in the privacy of home, is a common decision among Island County voters, according to Sinclair. Approximately 60 percent of county voters are registered to vote on a mail-in ballot.

“Fewer people are going to the polls,” Sinclair said. “We haven’t done any special promoting about that, that’s just people’s choice.”

The biggest concern at the Peace and Reconciliation meeting is the lack of a “paper trail” with the DRE system.

Ann LaCour, Island County’s chief deputy auditor, was at the meeting to listen to voter concerns and to address some questions and misperceptions the voters had of the systems. She explained that while the optical scan ballot will leave a paper trail, the system might not fit the requirements of the American Disabilities Act. She said the only new system meeting that requirement is the DRE.

And if a Whidbey Island power outage occurred during an election day? LaCour said a backup disk inside the computer brain of DRE machines is safety net for voting information.

Clinton resident Bob Kuehn wondered if taking a low-tech approach would be the easier. Randall Schwab agreed, wondering how electronic voting machines can be protected from crashes.

“I don’t have much faith in it,” said Schwab.

South Whidbey resident Margaret Moore said she is not concerned over Island County’s elections, because she trusts Whidbey Island residents are honest and concerned. In other states, however, she worried secretaries of state could abuse their power of discrimination, leaving her to wonder if tampering with the election was a possibility too.

“I would like to see people push for a system with some sort of paper trail,” said Moore.

Until the 2004 election is completed, voters won’t get a chance to try a new machine. Sinclair said when the auditor’s office gets closer to purchasing machines, it will hold public hearings on the topic.

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