Inside the Capitol

Monday, November 06, 2006

11-8 Paper Ballots?

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- While much of the rest of the nation tried out electronic voting machines for the first time, New Mexico junked its machines and went back to paper ballots.
So, is New Mexico headed back to the dark ages or is the rest of the nation getting ready to learn what we already have? It depends on who you talk to.
New Mexico's return to a paper ballot is intended to boost confidence in the election system and to be sure there is a verifiable paper trail for recounts.
Gov. Bill Richardson, a supporter of the new system, leaned hard on the Legislature to move away from the current patchwork system to a uniform paper ballot system in every county. Eleven counties still used paper ballots. The remaining 22 had gone to various electronic systems.
And, as is typical for our fast-forward governor, he ordered it done immediately. He signed the legislation in March and said he wanted everything in place by November.
He got it, but the quick roll-out just might produce some of the same problems as the state's new computer system that is uniform for all of state government. Getting SHARE online in half the normal time has caused headaches throughout state government.
If this election ends up going fairly smoothly, Richardson and Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron can boast that New Mexico is one of the first states in the nation to meet all the requirements of the 2002 Help America Vote Act passed by Congress following the 2000 election debacle.
But it won't be easy. Many Republicans opposed the change to uniform paper ballots in the last legislative session. Sen. Pete Domenici calls them "an imposition on the people of this state." Pat Rogers, an attorney for Republicans, noted paper ballots can be manipulated through "low-tech fraud."
There is a genuine problem when one political party controls the election system. The other party always will have some mistrust of the process whether the change is to or from paper ballots. Canadians reportedly are pleased with the private contractor they use.
The primary fear about electronic voting machines is that votes are untraceable if they need to be rechecked.
New Mexico's razor thin presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 both had unexplainable undercounts in the presidential race. One would expect that the vote for president would be the highest of any race on the ballot, but for some reason, it was the other way around.
Were electronic machines programmed incorrectly? Was there tampering? Did the machines just not count accurately? Those questions were never answered. So a lawsuit was filed by a liberal third-party group against the use of touch screen voting machines. The switch to a paper ballot system settled that suit.
We were told that paper ballots would mean shorter lines because there is little problem setting up extra voting stations for people to sit at and vote in private. But that hasn't been the case thus far.
One reason is the instruction that voters must completely fill in the oval next to their choice. In order to be sure their vote counts, many voters spent considerable time making sure there is no white space in those ovals.
Another reason for long lines is that the print on paper ballots is smaller than it is on electronic screens, forcing us old timers to labor over the words.
But, we are told, everything will work out for the best in the long run. The equipment and software is less expensive. There is less maintenance and storage space is reduced by 90 percent.
Obviously, technology will improve electronic voting machines to the point that more people eventually will come to trust them more. Will that mean New Mexico will then be in the horse and buggy days? Or will the rest of the nation come join us?

WED, 12-6-00

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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