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Computerized voting needed, possible

In the wake of November’s election fiasco in Florida, technology powerhouses Unisys, Dell and Microsoft have announced a plan to produce a new registration-to-tabulation voting system, called the e-@ction Solutions portfolio. Frankly, it’s about time.

The United States is a world leader in technology, and boasts some of the most powerful companies in every facet of the computing industry, yet still uses antiquated punch card voting systems. The seeming inability to incorporate the more accurate technology that this nation produces, leading to an unprecedented stalemate in a presidential election, is a national embarrassment.

The old system, while advanced for its time, is incredibly inefficient by today’s standards, leaving itself open to challenges and the potential for votes to be discarded simply because someone didn’t completely pencil in a bubble or punch out a chad. The benefits of computerized voting are readily apparent: faster turnaround for vote totals, which could be computed almost instantaneously, reduced risk of vote fraud, and the potential for a long-term reduction in the cost of running elections, not to mention that we’d never have to hear about “hanging chads” ever again.

Unisys — which has recent experience with a system in development for Minnesota’s caucuses — and it’s partners, joining recent initiatives by other companies such as IBM, Cisco and Compaq, say their election system will include clear voter registration and identification, and a fast and accurate tabulation system that will decrease confusion and potential for fraud. Unisys will head the effort, with Dell contributing its computing infrastructure and Microsoft handling the software. The resulting system, the companies say, would be customizable for election officials.

There are several areas of such an undertaking as a complete voting system that each of the companies would do well to remember. Prime among the issues faced with creating a voting system is security. From local to national elections, the selection of society’s leaders is very important, necessitating a decentralized network independent of any other, particularly the Internet, which is notorious for the defacement of Web sites and the spread of computer viruses. Redundant security measures such as firewalls and the latest in encryption technology — which is so advanced that even vaunted international intelligence agencies can’t crack it — are a must.

Another benefit of an independent, decentralized voting network, set up much like a high-security version of the Internet, would be a reduction in lag time and the ability to route the system around malfunctioning computers.

Central to any voting method, however, is gaining the confidence of the voters themselves. Voters must be made aware of the level of security currently available in computing, and what that means to their vote. Though no system would be able to completely eliminate fraud, a system of this type would seriously impact the casting of multiple or otherwise illegal votes. For the further peace of mind of the voter, a simple, user-friendly interface is a must.

Poll workers should have the ability — both in skill and in training prior to Election Day — to assist voters in the use of the software. Another effect of the automated tabulation of the votes cast, besides real-time data on the progress of an election, would be a reduced need for poll workers and ballot counters, thus reducing further the chance of bad counts and fraud.

While the rest of the country wants to avoid the controversy that hit Florida in the last election, they may not have the funding to do it, Peggy Sims, a research specialist for the FEC’s Office of Election Administration, said in a recent article published in the online technology news publication Lawmakers are expected to provide some form of financial assistance to municipalities or states that seek to improve their voting systems. Both the degree of funding and the pricetag for the electronic voting systems remains unclear.

Though it could be argued that the system’s software could quickly become outdated in today’s market, the technology in current use by many election agencies is nearly a century out of date itself. A well-designed software product could easily last as long. With the elimination of printing and paper costs, as well as the cost of the labor to produce and distribute the materials, the end cost of the system is potentially much less than the punch cards now in use in the long term. The software itself could also be updated periodically to improve speed, security and reliability.

America has both the means and the prosperity. Now, with the recent failing of the old election system in recent memory, is the time to drive toward a new approach for choosing our leaders. If not now, how many more botched elections will it take before the logical progression in election technology is incorporated?

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