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From the Newark

Hanging chad's legacy

Old bugs in new voting technology a worry for states

Monday, November 10, 2003
Star-Ledger Staff

In 1990, before the Web went World Wide, "online" was where people stood at banks.

Technology has come a long way since. But as New Jersey and other states prepare to buy thousands of computerized voting machines for next year's presidential election, experts say one thing hasn't changed. Most of the machines are certified to technical standards set almost 14 years ago.


Although the Federal Election Commission updated the standards last year, most electronic machines sold over the next year probably will meet only 1990 guidelines, the FEC's Brian Hancock said.


Aiming to avoid the Florida punch card mess of 2000, the Help America Vote Act last year earmarked $3.9 billion for new machines and other reforms. The law, known by its acronym HAVA, calls for a technical committee to examine standards and certification of voting machines, with the National Institute of Standards and Technology playing a lead role.

But the institute has not yet received any funds for the task, the agency's Allan Eustis said.

And months of political foot-dragging are being blamed for delaying the start of the new commission charged with overseeing the reforms. Those delays make it highly unlikely the testing system will get revamped by next November, officials said.


"The government is dispensing money for new machines before resolving standards issues," said Douglas Jones, a computer scientist from the University of Iowa.

The industry insists touch-screen machines -- which cost upward of $3,500 apiece and offer multiple languages and audio for the blind -- are superior to other voting methods.

Just because some machines conform to 1990 standards, "It doesn't mean they are bad," said R. Doug Lewis of the National Association of State Election Directors.


Computer expert Rebecca Mercuri blasted the 2002 standards as "hopelessly vague" and said they exempt most commercial software.

Facing next year's elections with machines rated for 1990 is "like buying a Chevy truck with 1990 emission equipment," said Mercuri, a Harvard fellow from Lawrenceville.