Originally created 10/31/04

Georgia machines get first big test



ATLANTA - When Georgia voters go to the polls Tuesday, it will mark almost two years to the day since the state became the first to use touch-screen voting machines in all its precincts.

Even though the state's $54 million electronic-voting system already has proven successful in five statewide elections, experts say its first real test - and the biggest test of its kind in the nation - will come in next week's elections.

If the 159-county system holds up to the high number of voters expected in the presidential election, Georgia could become a model for other states modernizing their systems. As one of only two states with a statewide system in place - Maryland is the other - Georgia will be closely watched on Election Day.

"They're certainly looking," said Michael Shamos, a computer science professor from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who spent 20 years certifying elections systems. "To go statewide in a state with that many counties is pretty ambitious. It's a very rigorous test of a voting system."

Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, the state's elections supervisor, declares her system "a resounding success" with only minor glitches reported in its five elections, most blamed on errors made by poll workers, not machines. Meanwhile, critics still complain about the lack of a paper trail and maintain that computer hackers could tamper with election results.

Regardless, when compared to states such as Florida and Ohio - where teams of lawyers are already lined up to challenge election results - Georgia's system has few naysayers.

GEORGIA'S LEGISLATURE in 2002 approved the plan to put the computerized voting machines in every polling place, replacing a patchwork of punch cards, optical-scan machines and paper ballots that Ms. Cox says would have proved no more reliable than Florida's system if Georgia's totals had been as closely scrutinized in 2000.

Most of the state's voters are confident in the new system. A pair of polls indicate that 70 percent to 80 percent of Georgia voters prefer the machines to the state's old voting methods.

Ms. Cox also cites a 2002 analysis of election results by her office that showed 0.8 percent of votes cast that year contained errors - compared with 3.5 percent in 2000 and 4.8 percent in 1998.

"We saw dramatic improvement in accuracy in every county in Georgia, regardless of the type of equipment they had been using before," Ms. Cox said. "We are now accurately counting votes, and we had not been doing that for years and years before."

THE SYSTEM STILL has its critics. A coalition of voting-rights groups - some of them affiliated with minor political parties - question the system's security.

"I have a background of some 20 years in computer programming. That's why I am completely suspect of the methodology used with these machines," said John Fortuin, a Decatur computer programmer who heads Defenders of Democracy, one of the Georgia-based groups.

Mr. Fortuin and others plan to "keep an eye out" for voting irregularities Tuesday, even though Ms. Cox assured the system's critics that the computers aren't hooked up to open Internet lines and there is little room for error.

During this year's presidential primaries, two precincts had to briefly use paper ballots because voting equipment wasn't working.

The biggest polling-place gaffe since Georgia's new voting system was introduced came this summer, and it was on some old-fashioned, paper absentee ballots. A typographical error in Laurens County caused a state Court of Appeals candidate's name to be misprinted - leading a judge to throw out the July election and call for it to be held again this month.

The top complaint from critics of Georgia's machines is that they don't offer paper records. Without a printed version of each vote, critics say, there's no evidence for recounts if the results of an election are questioned.

Some international election observers issued a report last week recommending that Georgia add a paper trail to its system, but Ms. Cox says technology hasn't advanced to the point where adding a paper ballot would be efficient.