- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2001

Lawmakers need to be cautious in their zeal to revamp the nation's electoral system, a federal election official says, adding that a national standard for voting machines, as some have proposed, would be an "unlikely" solution.

"What we need right now is some thoughtful innovation," said William Kimberling, deputy director of the Federal Election Commission's election administration division. "It really is a diverse country, and one state might prefer this kind of machine and another state that kind of machine."

Handing the responsibility for the uniformity of machines to the states could be a solution to the technical woes that bogged down the November presidential election in Florida, he said in an interview Friday.

The comments revisit a 1986 essay Mr. Kimberling wrote, which began: "Election disasters are nothing new."

Because of the Florida debacle, in which thousands of voters complained that they were deprived of access to the polls and that antiquated voting devices including the now-controversial "stylus" machine caused some ballots to be discarded.

The stylus machine involves a card that is punctured by a pointed device, or stylus. Some voters contend the stylus did not make a complete punch on the line next to their candidate, nullifying the ballot.

The market for voting machines has diluted the quality, Mr. Kimberling said, resulting in hastily concocted machines with varying degrees of accuracy. "You have a lot of vendors and that means, right now, you have to sell to a lot of counties to make any money," Mr. Kimberling said. "Technology costs so much that to refine it is not cost-effective."

With the possibility of a statewide sale, there would be more incentive to the sellers.

By 2004, numerous changes in the way Americans vote are predicted to be in place. Congress has promised to form a panel to address so-called confusing voting methods, and Democrats are interested in sacking punch-card ballots on the way to standardization.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said, "There are a whole series of mechanical things that need to be addressed."

His expansive list has a running theme: Money.

It includes things other than mechanics, including expanded training of poll workers, a trigger for a recount rather than simply a public outcry, and a muzzle on the media to prevent broadcast of early results.

Mr. Gans, who founded his organization in 1976, is convinced of one thing: "I think that by 2004, there won't be a punch-card system in the United States."

But several major metropolitan areas use the punch-card system to great effect. Chicago, for example, uses a new $26 million stylus punch system. Los Angeles, as well.

"And these systems are purchased based on a 10-year plan," said Bill Bilyeu, president of VOTEC Corp., a California-based company that sells election software, including punch-card tabulation software. He concedes that he hasn't sold a punch-card system in four years.

"But they are incredibly cost-effective," noted Mr. Bilyeu, a former county elections supervisor in Collin County, Texas, north of Dallas. "It gives you a paper trail. In a close vote, people will always have to deal with troubling equipment. It is more prudent at this time to be a little slow, since any kind of standardization is going to be incredibly costly."

It also presents the possibility of a finer strain of election high jinks. Any standardization opens the door to saboteurs who can manipulate the vote by learning counting codes.

The decentralization of election operations has long been called a safeguard that is unique among modern democracies, an operation that involves more than 10,000 local election officials and more than 175,000 polling boards nationwide.

Mary Morgan is a former election administrator from Collier County, Fla. She watched with bemusement the attack on Florida's system, knowing well that such troubles happen each election.

But standardization is a bad move, she said. "When I tell you that there is no perfect voting system, I am not telling you a fib," said Mrs. Morgan, who held her post for 15 years. "With a standard system, it makes it easier for anyone who want to to get in and queer everybody's tabulating system."

The source code, which tabulates the votes for each candidate, could easily be altered at a main site, allowing one person to skew an entire state's vote, Mrs. Morgan said. It will take some time to hammer out the details of election reform, and Mr. Kimberling is looking at more studies yet to be undertaken.

"We want to commission a study to see if certain equipment has an impact on poorer precincts and counties," he said. "We also plan to study if one kind of equipment causes more problems than others.

"Understandably, everyone is upset and it wasn't a pleasant election. But before we jump, we need to look carefully before we administer a quick fix. Suppose in our adoration for computer technology when it first came out, we would have imposed that nationwide? It would have been a tragic mistake in retrospect, wouldn't it?"

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