While the state has decided to move toward replacing all voting methods - paper, punch card, optical scanner, voting machines - with touch-screen, ATM-style computer terminals that move may be overly hasty ... and at a possible $150 million too costly.
While the state hopes that federal grants will help pay for any new equip- ment, and Congress is looking into this, the reality is that at best it will cover only part of the cost. Elections are a local responsibility but involve races at three levels: local, state and national offices. The feds aren't going to pay for local and state elections, the state isn't going to pay for local elections. It will be a shared expense, and rightly should be.
However, the state has not yet determined how the costs would be divided and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia has already gone on record as saying it supports going to a new voting method - so long as counties don't have to pay to upgrade equipment. Plainly, this is far from a done deal.
MORE IMPORTANT, while fancy high-tech answers to human problems are much favored in our current society, the reality is that such solutions are themselves not perfect. When no business that relies on computers needs on-staff technicians to handle the daily glitches, then maybe it will be time to trust our precious votes to motherboards.
Another issue thus far avoided, though perhaps the state commission being created to look into this will find a satisfactory answer, is the "what if" scenario. What if something happens to the ballots that are electronically cast? What if a lightning strike wipes out the 200 votes on a single computer, or the 200,000 votes being processed by the central server? What if a recount is in order but there's nothing there to actually recount?
It would seem the ideal answer, at least for the moment, would be some process that combines efficiency and high-speed vote tabulation with a permanent paper record as a backup.
That is an exact description of the voting method with which Floyd Countians are very familiar, because it is what they have used for more than a decade: Optical-scan ballots.
One starts with a paper ballot. One fills in circles next to the name of the desired candidate. The ballots are run through an optical scanner at high speed (the whole county gets counted in roughly three hours). The ballots are still there to be looked at if there is a challenge or a recount.
OPTICAL SCAN is also already the method used by most voters in the state. Some 53 percent of the electorate votes this way, compared to about 30 percent using punch ballots (including Fulton and DeKalb counties), 17 percent voting machines and 0.1 percent paper ballots. In other words, converting to a single statewide system would be least expensive with the optical-scan choice because that is the way most Georgians already vote.
This system has only one major failing, the same that afflicts all current methods: human mistakes. The appeal of touch-screen voting is that it can be programmed to sense and catch human errors, stop, warn the human what he/she is doing wrong, wait for a correction and then not count the ballot as "cast" until everything is as perfect as computers can make them.
What is needed is a similar added step in optical-scan balloting. A step that catches the fact that the voter has just picked two different candidates for president, has used a ball-point pen to fill in the bubbles instead of the dark lead pencil that is all the machine can read, has put an unreadable smudge on one race that the counting machine won't see, has failed to cast a ballot in some race - on purpose or by mistake? - and can ask that question.
INDEED, THESE problems result in a consequence of which few citizens are aware. Optical-scan ballots are actually those most often "spoiled" - not the punch cards. According to Cathy Cox, Georgia's secretary of state, "I think part of the problem has to do with the ease for a person to make a mistake with an opti-scan ballot." This factor, she said, shows up most in African American optical-scan precincts (7.6 percent undervotes) and least in white precincts (2.2 percent undervotes).
Sometimes, as in the case of Floyd County, election officials can spot errors during the counting process and correct them - covering over ball-point marks with lead pencil, for example. Obviously, if the voter has put two smudges next to the names of two candidates in the same race, there's nothing to be done. Only mechanical errors can be repaired, not those involving the possible intent of the voter.
What's needed to perfect this method, which in other ways has the most going for it and, most importantly, preserved a paper record of what the voter wanted, is some sort of smaller, slower scanner at each polling place through which a ballot can be run before being put into the locked box. It could tell the voter if the ballot is acceptable (meaning countable) or indicate what went wrong. It could then signal to poll workers that the voter needed a new ballot and discard, perhaps shred, the spoiled one.
THIS WOULD guarantee that all votes - 100 percent of them - would be counted by checking them before, not after, they were cast. There could never again be doubt about any election's outcome. In a close race, the paper ballots would be available for a manual recount (since all machines have been known to make mistakes).
This is the sort of confidence in their voting system that all Georgians, and Americans, deserve to have. In this state's case, except for adding a new double-check step, it is already halfway there.
It would seem smarter to work on perfecting something that already is here than reinventing the wheel. It would be easier, faster and less expensive to do.
Let's remember the goal. It is not to be able to brag about having the most high-tech voting system in the country. The only bragging rights that Georgia's voters should desire is in having the safest and most-accurate system. Votes, after all, are priceless