Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The chads hang around impatiently

A federal judge in Ohio ruled Tuesday that third-party presidential candidates Michael Badnarik and David Cobb can't force a presidential recount in the state until the state certifies its initial count on Dec. 6. The decision makes perfectly good sense -- you can't count something again until you've counted it in the first place -- but it's still worrisome that it would take more than a month to count about 5.5 million votes.

The Electoral College convenes in state capitals on Dec. 13, so the timeline for the recount will be rather short even if the recount is done entirely by machine. But the Ohio recount will be more complicated and controversial than most because most counties there are still using those punch-card ballots that wreaked havoc in Florida four years ago and temporarily made "hanging chad" America's favorite "sounds-dirty-but-it-isn't" catchphrase. As MSNBC's Keith Olbermann points out, however, the cut-off date in the unlikely event that a recount flips Ohio to the Democratic side is not Dec. 13 but Jan. 6, when Congress opens the electors' votes.

Chances are that Ohio will stay in the red column, and if that's what a majority there said, that's how it should be. The important lesson to take from the last two presidential elections is that Americans must be confident that every vote is being counted and being counted accurately. Neither punch cards nor electronic voting machines without a paper trail are the way to inspire that confidence. It's time for the American people, reluctant as we may be, to re-examine the way we conduct elections in this country and to force our elected leaders to reform the system.

My recommendation? Though they've been the subject of some contention in this year's Florida balloting, optical scan machines seem intuitively to be the best choice. They offer both the speed of a machine count and the safeguard of a paper record that can be recounted by hand if necessary. These machines are used in all but two counties in Alabama -- Mobile and Montgomery are the holdouts -- and all you have to do to complete the ballot is draw a straight line. If you accidentally vote for more than one person for the same office (an "overvote"), the machine will spit your ballot out and let you try again. The hundreds of overvotes that turned the 2000 presidential election wouldn't have been possible if Florida had been using optical scan machines statewide.

Say what you will about my state, but when it comes to election technology, we made a good choice. Other states would do well to follow our lead.

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