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The Star-Ledger

Split vote on electronic tally

Conference reveals stark division on computer systems' reliability

Monday, December 15, 2003
Star-Ledger Staff

GAITHERSBURG, Md. -- It was meant to be a peace-making summit. For two days last week, computer experts, election officials and vendors of electronic voting machines from around the country gathered here in Maryland. The conference was optimistically titled, "Building Trust and Confidence in Voting Systems."

Things started well enough. Everyone applauded a handshake between a vociferous critic of electronic voting machines and a leader of the national association that has overseen their certification.

But democracy is a messy business.

Soon the geeks were trading taunts with the blind, to cheers from their respective camps.

Election officials, eager to skip a repeat of the 2000 debacle, were left wondering how to prepare for next year's presidential election. The only certainty is that new voting machines and other reforms mean big business for manufacturers and software makers looking to cash in on $3.9 billion earmarked last year in the Help America Vote Act.

Professors from Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities predicted dire abuses of computerized voting machines; they insisted that old-fashioned paper receipts offer the best defense.

Election supervisors dismissed such warnings as "X-Files" ravings of "black helicopter people." Try asking 73-year-old poll workers to fix jammed printers, snickered an election official from Missouri.

Douglas Jones of the University of Iowa summed up the mood during a panel discussion.

"Trust no one," the computer scientist intoned.