It sounded like a good idea at the time: modernizing elections with touch-screen voting and instant tabulation. Enough with the punch cards and the ink dots, and enough with the endless waits for election results when helicopters carrying paper ballots from far-flung precincts are grounded due to fog. Why should people who do their shopping and banking online be stuck in the dark ages when they vote?
But early electronic voting systems proved vulnerable to error. And worries about fraud persisted. Even absent verifiable evidence that election results were changed by hackers or by politically motivated voting-machine makers, the mere belief that such meddling was possible was enough to undermine confidence in elections.
So there is some comfort in the fact that the consulting contract adopted this week by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors calls for a modernized system based on some very old-school elements. The proposal emerged after careful vetting from an advisory panel that included election experts and voting rights advocates.
Voters, probably beginning in 2020, will mark their ballots by touching a computer screen, making the voting process more user-friendly while giving election officials greater flexibility in designing materials for multiple jurisdictions and in multiple languages. Or voters might mark their sample ballots on their smartphones, bring them to the polling place, scan in their choices, see them on the screen and then cast their votes.
But the result will be a paper ballot, visible to and reviewable by the voter. It is the paper ballot that will be counted, and it will be available for auditing and recounts. That's the fundamental security element on which voting experts insist: something tangible and not merely electronic that auditors can check.
If the new system is so old school, though, does it make sense to pay millions of dollars to change from the current InkaVote system?
It does. Los Angeles County dumped its punch-card system and began using InkaVote after the Florida ballot fiasco in the 2000 Bush versus Gore election, but the technology and software are circa 1968. The system is cumbersome to modify when, for example, there is a major change in election practices, as with the switch to the top-two primary that California adopted in 2010.
The new machines and software that county officials have in mind are relatively flexible, they say, and could be converted to a more fully electronic system — when security concerns can be fully met.