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Dobbs: Voting machines put U.S. democracy at risk

By Lou Dobbs
CNN
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Editor's note: Lou Dobbs' commentary appears every Wednesday on CNN.com

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Democrats and Republicans are desperately trying to nationalize the midterm elections, now only 48 days away.

Democrats are seeking to focus voter attention on President Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq, while Republicans are trying to convince voters that the president and all Republicans should be given credit for the conduct of the war on terror, and the fact that there has not been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001.

And voters will also choose which party to support on a host of other issues, local and national: illegal immigration, border security, the state of the economy, the escalating cost of health care, failing public schools, record budget and trade deficits, and the declining standard of living for the middle class.

Voters will be deciding whether the promise of challengers or the performance of incumbents merits their votes. The most recent polls reveal a national public mood that is now more supportive of a still unpopular president and about evenly divided over their preferences for, or tolerance of, congressional Republicans and Democrats. In other words, less than seven weeks before we go to the polls, there is every indication that the partisan quest for power on Capitol Hill will be close.

But there is additional uncertainty about the outcome of our elections that is intolerable and inexcusable, and which could make the contested 2000 presidential election look orderly by comparison. As of right now, there is little assurance your vote will count. As we've been reporting almost nightly on my broadcast for more than a year, electronic voting machines are placing our democracy at risk.

Across the nation, eight out of every 10 voters will be casting their ballots this November on electronic voting machines. And these machines time and again have been demonstrated to be extremely vulnerable to tampering and error, and many of them have no voter-verified paper trail.

There is simply no way in which election officials and their staffs of thousands of volunteers with limited experience and often poor training can possibly carry out reliable recounts.

Only 27 states have laws requiring the use of voter-verified paper trails in electronic machines. Eight more states utilize a paper trail in their machines but don't require it, leaving 15 states with no mandated requirements for safeguarding your vote. But with no national law in place, our midterm elections are being threatened by a system lacking any real regulation and standards.

The problems with electronic voting aren't necessarily new, yet we're still not ready for the midterms. During the 2004 presidential election, one voting machine in a Columbus, Ohio, suburb reportedly added nearly 3,900 additional votes to Bush's total. Officials caught the machine's error because only 638 voters cast presidential ballots at that precinct, but in a heavily populated district, can we really be sure the votes will be counted correctly?

The May primary election in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, was nothing less than a complete debacle. A report from the Election Science Institute found the electronic voting machines' four sources of vote totals -- individual ballots, paper trail summary, election archives and memory cards -- didn't even match up. The totals were all different, and the report concluded that relying on the current system for Cuyahoga County's more than 1.3 million people should be viewed as "a calculated risk." Are we really willing to risk our democracy?

This problem is obviously not limited to Ohio. During Illinois' March primary, Cook County delayed the results of its crucial county board elections for a week as a result of human and mechanical problems at hundreds of sites with the new voting machines.

The recent primary elections in Montgomery County, Maryland, also highlighted just how unprepared many polling places are for the midterms. The state election administrator is demanding to know what went wrong after election workers did not receive access cards to operate the Diebold voting machines for the county's 238 precincts on time, forcing as many as 12,000 voters to use provisional paper ballots that ran out quickly. Some were simply told to come back later and vote.

There are four main manufacturers of electronic voting systems, none of which has been demonstrated to be more secure than the others. Diebold is the most well-known, but a new Princeton University study concerning Diebold's AccuVote-TS machine found that hackers can easily tamper with electronic voting machines by installing a virus to disable machines and change the vote totals.

Princeton researchers found that "malicious software" running on a single voting machine can steal votes with little, if any, risk of detection, and that anyone with access can install the software. The study also suggests these machines are susceptible to voting-machine viruses. Diebold says the unit used in the test was two generations old and to its knowledge is not used anywhere in the country.

A 2005 Government Accountability Office report on electronic voting confirmed the worst fears of watchdog groups and election officials. That report said, "There is evidence that some of these concerns have been realized and have caused problems with recent elections, resulting in the loss and miscount of votes."

That is simply unacceptable. Congress and the White House need to immediately take steps to assure the integrity of electronic voting with paper trails that could be audited in any recount, or provisions must be made for paper ballots if the reliability of e-voting cannot be assured before November 7.

When voters lose confidence in our elected representatives, we can vote the bums out. But what is the recourse if American voters lose confidence in our electoral system?


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Americans could lose confidence in the electoral system if the integrity of electronic voting machines cannot be assured.

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