By DALE McFEATTERS
Supposedly the disputed 2000 Florida election, when the presidency dangled by a hanging chad from poorly punched paper ballots, taught us a lesson. And the lesson lawmakers drew from it, in the Help America Vote Act of 2002, was go high-tech, and scrap the old punch-card voting machines in favor of optical scanners, touch screens and computerized vote counts.
There’s mounting evidence it may have been the wrong lesson, the recent Maryland primary being a case in point.
Maryland is a well-educated, well-to-do state with a Republican governor and Democratic legislature relentlessly scrutinizing each other for hanky-panky and many jurisdictions that are models of good, clean government with an alert and engaged electorate.
Nonetheless, thanks to a new electronic voting system and the overwhelmed poll workers who operated it, the Sept. 12 primary, if something short of a shambles, was hardly confidence-inspiring. As of Friday, the Democratic outcome in one congressional district was still up in the air as officials hand-counted thousands of provisional paper ballots.
That prompted the GOP governor, Robert Ehrlich, to call for scrapping the new $106 million system and to threaten a special session of the legislature to bring back the paper ballot.
Some electronic poll books, which replaced the old paper voter-registration rolls, crashed and needed to be rebooted. Some failed to transmit the name of a signed-in voter to all the machines at the polling place, meaning that the voter theoretically could have voted more than once. In some places, the machines failed to transmit their data from the polling place to the central office where the results were to be tabulated.
And the machines had help. In one county, the polls were late opening because officials forgot to distribute the cards that activate the machines. In another, officials forgot to remove the memory cards locked in the machines that record the backup data. Some cards sat in the machines unattended for days after the election.
On Nov. 7, more than 80 percent of all voters, pursuant to federal law, will vote electronically, many of them in precincts using the machines for the first time. Come Nov. 8, Ehrlich may not be the only governor calling for a return to paper ballots.
And, too, we seem to recall that one country had good luck with purple fingers.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)