Jewish World ReviewApril 23, 2004 / 2 Iyar, 5764

Zev Chafets

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Give us paper ballots: Computers can be hacked, so let's do it old-fashioned way | On Monday, John Kerry visited Palm Beach, Fla. - the scene of the crime, as far as Democrats are concerned - and issued a stern warning. "We will challenge any place in America where you cannot trace the vote and count the votes of Americans," he said.

The challenge Kerry has in mind is a legal one. He already is raising a flying squad of lawyers to fight election results Democrats regard as suspicious. In the present climate, that means every close contest they don't win.

The Republicans have lawyers, too. They will respond in kind, challenging tight Democratic victories everywhere.

This is a recipe for disaster. Polls suggest there will be evenly fought contests all over the country. If they all turn into bitter lawsuits, the system crashes.

Voting in a free society is an act of faith. You cast your ballot assuming it will be tallied honestly. Democracy can't withstand widespread mistrust of the vote count any more than capitalism can exist on fake currency and phony bank statements.

There are efforts underway around the country to restore confidence by introducing computerized voting.

That is fighting the last war. Push-button screens may do away with hanging chads but they can't assuage the humiliation and paranoia that now percolate in the Democratic Party. Example: Kerry told a Florida crowd that the election of 2000 was "stolen" from Al Gore and the Democrats.

In the current atmosphere, computerized results won't necessarily be trusted any more than other results. How do you know some hacker isn't changing the votes? Or that the computer manufacturer didn't program the numbers in advance?

This is not just a Democratic concern. Everybody knows the uneasy feeling of sending a credit card number into cyberspace. Multiply that by 100 million votes and you get a sense of the mistrust and uncertainty virtual voting might generate.

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Sen. Hillary Clinton has proposed that computerized voters get a receipt, like at the ATM. She argues that such a document will leave a paper trail, keeping the computers honest. Clinton is right about the need for transparency but wrong to think it can be accomplished with a receipt. Who can say the computers aren't fixed, anyway? And if there is a recount, are millions of people supposed to come together and toss crumpled little pieces of computer paper into a huge pile?

The current skepticism about the voting system is so visceral - and so potentially dangerous - that it requires something more than a note from a machine. There has to be a tangible, supervised count. The only way to get one is by using paper ballots.

I'm not talking about the butterflies and hanging chads of yesteryear. I mean actual ballots (at least in the presidential election), physically placed in ballot boxes by voters and tallied by hand with representatives of the major parties looking over the shoulder of the counters in every precinct in the country.

This would be expensive, but so what? Adding precincts and electoral personnel is a small price to pay for uncontested results. As for the political parties, they can easily come up with a few million dollars to hire extra poll watchers.

Hand-counting ballots would certainly slow down the television networks' election-night rush to judgment - not a bad thing after the debacle in 2000 - but it also would heighten the drama. And no matter how long it took to tally the votes by hand, the final result would be in long before it was in 2000.

Someday, public trust in the integrity of the count will be restored, and voting can take place in cyberspace. Until then, the watchword of American elections must be: Verify.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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