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Technology won’t fix voting flaws, ABA told

SHARE Technology won’t fix voting flaws, ABA told

SAN DIEGO — Shoddy election equipment disenfranchised voters in the 2000 presidential election, but improvements in voting technology alone will not prevent another case like Florida's, lawyers said Saturday.

No voting system is foolproof, and voters will make mistakes no matter what, agreed panelists re-examining the Florida voting process at the American Bar Association's winter meeting.

"Where you had the best technology, we still had a stack of complaints," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

In at least one instance, sophisticated technology is to blame for keeping black voters from the polls, Arnwine said. A computer system that was supposed to update Florida voter rolls mistakenly purged law-abiding citizens as felons, who cannot vote, she said.

"It is often said that you're entitled to a fair election but not a perfect one," said David Cardwell, a Florida election lawyer. "Lord knows, we didn't have a perfect one on Nov. 7."

The panel identified several other problems that technology alone will not fix, such as polls that were short-staffed, closed early or ran out of ballots.

Upgrades to optical-scanner voting, which asks voters to fill in circles beside the name of their chosen candidate, would eliminate most of the mistakes, Cardwell said.

But the scanners that read those ballots will not record a choice if the voter mistakenly places a check mark in the circle or draws a larger circle around it, even though both marks clearly indicate a preference, panelists noted.

Voting via the Internet, which some see as the ultimate application of technology to democracy, is also fraught with potential problems, said San Jose State University political scientist Linda Valenty. She cited the potential for fraud, manipulation of votes and loss of privacy.

There are also more prosaic barriers to Internet voting, Valenty said, including technical problems like the "denial of service" outage that have hit Internet service providers in recent months.

"This technology is something the Founding Fathers could not have envisioned," Valenty said. While it offers great potential to expand democracy, "we must proceed with caution."

Lawsuits continue over the Florida vote, which was not settled until 36 days after the election, when the Supreme Court stopped ballot recounts and decided the election for President Bush.

The divided court ruled that manual ballot recounts in Florida were unconstitutional because various counties used different standards to evaluate a vote.

The court also pointed to machines that did not record all votes, and said the system should be standardized in order to meet the Constitution's guarantee of "equal protection" under the law.

The Florida vote will likely encourage even more lawsuits over future elections, said Washington election lawyer Kenneth Gross, who worked for Republican candidate Bob Dole in 1996.

"And thanks to the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court, we have a few new causes of action," Gross joked, using a lawyer's term for "reasons to sue."

Future court cases presumably would use the equal protection precedent to argue that it is unconstitutional for some counties to have better, more accurate voting equipment than others.