Hurry, you only have until Monday, July 28, to get in your two-cents about Mississippi's voting upgrades.
Ready for your shiny new computerized voting machine? Mississippi should have them by the 2006 federal primaries, thanks to the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in 2002. HAVA, a reaction to the 2000 Presidential election debacle (but, oddly not named the "Help Florida Count All Its Votes Act"), does the sort of thing that makes a state secretary of state smile—it allocates a boatload of federal funds ($34 million to Mississippi, assuming Congress follows through with allocations) for cool stuff like lots of new, sparkly computers.
Secretary of State Eric Clark recently issued a draft plan for HAVA compliance, which can be viewed at the SOS Web site . The plan discusses the two main features of the voter reform—the new machines and a new statewide, computerized database of voters. The database is meant to cut down on fraud while making it easier to change jurisdictions within the state. The database will also provide the means to crosscheck voter rolls against felon databases and Health Services' databases to purge ineligible and deceased voters.
Electronic machines, ideally, cut down on legal votes that are miscounted. The machines that Mississippi buys will be designed for "second-chance" voting, which alerts the voter to under-and over-votes along with other mistakes. David Blount, spokesman for the secretary of state, says the new machines will replace antiquated systems that were bought and maintained by individual counties, helping overcome "documented, quantifiable problems" with uncounted legal votes in Mississippi elections.
Of course, both electronic voting machines and statewide databases have their detractors. HAVA requires that the electronic voting machines have a paper audit trail that enables officials to check for error rates and voting records available for court-ordered recounts. In California, debate is raging over whether or not the machines should actually print a ballot or ballot receipt at the polling location so the voters can feel strongly that the machine isn't altering their votes. Some criticize that approach because it simply turns the computer into a sophisticated ballot printer, saying it's a waste of money and trees not to trust these ATM-like voting booths. Others have more trouble believing that pushing a button on the screen always equals that vote being tabulated by the computer's innards.
Various computerized voting systems have come under attack for potential security flaws—computerizing the ballots opens a can of worms that could lead to electronic tampering or ballot hacking. The book "Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century," by Beverly Harris (http://www.blackboxvoting.com), documents alleged problems with Diebold Election Systems, one of the more popular touch-screen systems.
According to a story published by Salon.com about Janet Reno's 2002 primary election for governor of Florida, some machines in Broward and Miami-Dade County failed to register any votes for governor, despite the fact that thousands of people had used them. Election System & Software (ESS), the company that made the machines, blamed the poll workers for not inserting the correct memory cards. ESS technicians were called out, they plugged devices into the voting machine and, voila, suddenly there were votes for governor. That process didn't sit well with everyone involved, including Reno, who was eventually forced to concede the primary despite a margin of only 5,000 votes in 1.3 million cast.
Statewide databases are generally seen as a good idea, although some privacy advocates bristle at a centralized system. One of the major criticisms lodged at Florida's 2000 election process is that the state used faulty database criteria to purge non-felons (and felons who'd had their voting rights restored legally) from the voter rolls erroneously. According to Greg Palast, author of the book "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," the purged non-felons were disproportionately African-American.
Some $15 million will be spent on the new voting machines in Mississippi, $10 million will be spent on the database, and $9.2 million will be spent on other federal compliance requirements such as poll worker training and state administrative costs. As part of the federal requirements, at least one polling place per district must be handicapped-accessible (such that a physically challenged person can still vote in private), and they must include provisions for affidavit balloting so that people who don't show up on the voter rolls can still submit a ballot and track that ballot to see if it was counted. There's even some cash in the budget to encourage both college-age poll workers and high-school poll interns if counties choose to participate.
Comments must reach the secretary of state's office by July 28. Send e-mail comments to [e-mail missing], or write Secretary of State, P.O. Box 136, Jackson, MS 39205-0136.
Some additional links I just stumbled on: