By DICK POLMAN
If you're worried that the newfangled electronic voting machines are a threat to the integrity of our democracy, rest assured: You're not just being paranoid.
This is a worrisome topic to introduce on the eve of crucial midterm elections, but since the Republican Congress didn't bring it up over the summer -- preferring, instead, to spend precious weeks showcasing dead-end hot-button issues, such as gay marriage and flag burning -- we'll do so here. After all, we're only talking about whether 21st-century Americans can trust the high-tech process by which they choose their leaders.
This isn't a particularly sexy issue. It only rarely seeps into the popular culture (comic Bill Maher has quipped that "some 13-year-old hacker in Finland is going to hand the presidency to Kylie Minogue"), and at first one might be tempted to outfit the handwringers with tinfoil hats and send them on an all-expenses-paid trip to visit Oliver Stone.
But that impulse is quickly overridden by the weight of the empirical evidence, which shows that the newest touch-screen machines -- which will serve roughly 40 percent of the 2006 electorate -- are about as reliable as Hal, the computer that wrought havoc in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."
For starters, these machines can be hacked all too easily, but that's only the most dramatic finding. More often -- and this has already happened in a number of states, including Maryland and New Mexico -- they lose votes, fail to register votes, "switch" votes between competing candidates, count votes twice, and simply freeze before voters can vote.
Maybe these dire findings could be dismissed if they had appeared in only one report. At last count, however, there have been at least nine such reports -- from places such as Princeton and Stanford, all authored by reputable computer-security experts with esteemed university pedigrees. And we also have the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, which concluded a year ago that "problems with the security and reliability of electronic voting systems" are "potentially affecting the reliability of future elections, and voter confidence in the accuracy of the vote count."
If either the Democrats or the Republicans manage to stage a blowout in the '06 elections, capturing or holding Congress by a wide margin of seats, these computer warnings will be quickly forgotten. But they could look prescient if the battle for power hinges on only a handful of seats. And the warnings may well resurface in 2008, if a tight fight for the White House hinges on only a few key states. It will probably take the feds at least a few more years to catch up with the technology anyway; right now, as we prepare to vote in 16 days, there are still no federal certification standards for these new machines.
Some political leaders have become so alarmed that they want to scrap these machines entirely. Last month, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, said he wanted to go back to paper ballots ("When in doubt, go paper"), even though his state had paid $106 million to go high-tech. His request was foiled by the legislature. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, did get his lawmakers to scrap the machines and return to paper. Meanwhile, public-interest lawyers have sued nine states, demanding that state officials decertify these machines -- not just because they are allegedly prone to glitches and worse, but also because they are paperless.
This lack of a paper trail, of any printed confirmation, is crucial. After using a touch screen, voters have no way to check whether their choices have been properly recorded. And this is why reformers contend that, if we're going to keep buying these machines, the least we can do is require backup paper trails. Indeed, ever since 2003, there have been sporadic calls in Congress for a federal paper-trail law. Nothing has been done, despite growing public doubt about the credibility of the ballot box -- further proof that politicians in Washington would rather dwell on symbolic patriotic issues (protect the flag's cloth), as opposed to the substantive (protect what the flag stands for).
Rush Holt, a back-bench congressional Democrat from New Jersey, filed a paper-trail bill three years ago with just a smattering of supporters; still stymied in 2004, he made his case again: "Ever had a laptop computer problem? You just show common sense, and back everything up." That year, he had 134 co-sponsors. This year, he has 219 co-sponsors -- more than half of all House members, but still no movement on the bill itself.
Why no action? Several reasons, all of which provide insights into how Congress works (or doesn't) and how politicians calculate.
First, they feel they've already tackled election reform, and they don't want to do it again. After the old voting technology gave us the hanging-chad Florida crisis of 2000, Congress came up with money to help the states go high-tech. The last thing Congress wants to admit today is that this move might actually have created potential crises that could far overshadow chads. And it doesn't want to foist a paper-trail requirement on the states, much less pony up more money for it.
Second, Republicans still run Congress, and most of them dismiss this issue as a Democratic talking point. Some liberals, while still seething about Florida 2000, are also convinced that the 2004 election was stolen in Ohio (pointing out that the chief executive officer of Diebold Inc., one of the most prominent touch-screen companies, was also a prominent Bush fund-raiser). Right now, some liberals are convinced that if Karl Rove doesn't manage to produce Osama bin Laden in chains on election eve, and thereby swing momentum to the beleaguered GOP, he will find a way to rig the voting machines.
As a result, and despite all the warnings, Republican leadership has shown no interest in pushing for a paper-trail law that, politically speaking, might appear to validate the concerns of their opponents. Even though Holt's paper-trail idea has 219 backers, only 22 of them are Republicans.
So this is how a festering problem could well become a future crisis. On the Washington radar screen, the voting issue is a blip compared with Iraq and the war on terror, but it's potent enough to warrant an HBO documentary, titled Hacking Democracy, which debuts Nov. 2. As an Ohio schoolteacher and state senator, worried about her state's new machines, remarked to me 21/2 years ago: "Before we were worried about hanging chads. How much better off are we now, with an invisible chip?"
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.