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Times Editorial: Virtues of Optical-Scan Voting

The New York Times
March 9th, 2005

New York is on the verge of selecting its next generation of voting machines. The Legislature appears poised to do one important thing right: to require that touch-screen voting machines produce voter-verifiable paper records. But it is in danger of doing another important thing wrong: giving short shrift to optical-scan voting, the most reliable and cost-effective of the current technologies. As it finalizes voting machine legislation, Albany should ignore lobbyists for high-priced voting machines and come out strongly for optical-scan machines.

The big voting machine companies, which are well connected politically, are aggressively pushing touch-screen voting. These A.T.M.-style machines make a lot of sense for the manufacturers because they are expensive and need to be replaced frequently. But touch-screen machines are highly vulnerable to being hacked or maliciously programmed to change votes. And they cost far more than voting machines should. If touch-screen machines are going to be used - and they have spread rapidly in recent years - it is vital that they produce voter-verifiable paper records of every vote to ensure that their results are accurate.

The better course would be not to use them at all. The best voting technology now available uses optical scanning. These machines work like a standardized test. Voters mark their choices on a paper form, which is then counted by a computer. The paper ballots are kept, becoming the official record of the election. They can be recounted, and if there is a discrepancy between them and the machine count, the paper ballots are the final word.

Optical-scan machines produce a better paper record than touch-screen machines because it is one the voter has actually filled out, not a receipt that the voter must check for accuracy. Optical-scan machines are also far cheaper than touch-screens. Their relatively low cost will be welcomed by taxpayers, of course, but it also has a direct impact on elections. Because touch-screen machines are so expensive, localities are likely to buy too few, leading to long lines at the polls.

The draft bills that the Legislature is working on do not rule out optical-scan voting, but they are far more focused on touch-screen voting. That may be because voting machine manufacturers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying legislators, or it may simply be that optical-scan equipment has had a lower profile. Whatever the reason, the Legislature owes it to the voters - and the taxpayers - to promote optical-scan voting.

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