Friday, November 5, 2010

Oh, It Counts, All Right . . . .

. . .But sometimes you have to wonder who is doing the counting. It's a lesson we should have learned in 2000, when the country waited two months to find out who would win the presidential election, during which time "hanging chad" worked its way into the American vocabulary.

Many people were concerned when the "fix" seemed to be computerized voting machines that would record the votes electronically. "Technology to the rescue." They pointed out that the only sure way to maintain the public trust was to have a printed ballot, which provide a concrete paper trail. Anyone who has any experience with computers know that a whole database can be extinguished by the click of a mouse or a surge of electricity at the wrong time.

As long as there's a paper trail, election officials can do a recount, even if the ballots are scanned optically by machine. Devices like the Accuvote system proved themselves in numerous recounts, with close to 100% accuracy.

Of course as long as there are politicians, there will be someone who will find a way to gain the upper hand in an under-handed way. In a not-too-distant primary election, someone sent back an absentee ballot which had the box to be filled in next to two of the candidates' names, but nothing next to the third guy's name.

The elections people quickly and quietly corrected the mistake, but left some of us thinking. "That was just an honest mistake, wasn't it?"This year in another election in a different state, yet another disturbing issue came up. The voter signs an affadavit attesting to his identity and right to vote. The affadavit contains a bar code. The voter brings it to another table in the polling place, where a clerk gets out a paper ballot which also contains a bar code. The he scans both bar codes, and hands the blank ballot to the voter.

The question is: does that mean that they can find out how you vote? The official answer is, "No, of course not. They wouldn't do that anyway."

But the computer types we have talked to say, "It'd be a piece of cake." Not every jurisdiction has a political machine that might, say, tinker with the property assessments depending on how someone voted. But it's enough of a threat just thinking that someone could find out, if they wanted to, to have a chilling effect not only on free speech, but on your right to choose your candidates.

It's something to think about. As a retired lawman who was in a position to know once told me, "Free elections are our last bastion of freedom."

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