Missouri's county election directors go to considerable lengths to ensure the integrity of elections, hiring one staffer from both major parties to oversee critical points in the election process and putting double locks on rooms holding sensitive voting supplies.
These and other measures have been in place for decades because experience has taught that when power and money hang in the balance, the temptation for manipulating an election outcome is too great to rely on a "just trust us" approach.
However, since the purchase of direct-record touch-screen voting machines (called DREs) in 2006, these efforts at making elections transparent — and election results thereby believable — have been nullified.
Votes — particularly in populous areas such as St. Louis — now often are collected on DREs. There is nothing transparent about this voting method. The machine's software is secret; and contrary to what most voters believe, it is not reviewed by public officials at any level of government.
There is simply no way for anyone to know — without first making the assumption that the private software has functioned correctly — whether the ballot record in the machine's memory actually represents what the voter voted for on the screen. There is a paper tape record of the vote — an adding machine-type printed tape in a difficult-to-read window. However, because voters almost never check it, that provides no protection against fraud. Only a hand-marked paper ballot offers election authorities a reliable, software-free record of the voter's intent.
How worried should we be about the DREs' lack of a true audit capability? There have been many suspicious DRE software "irregularities" around the nation in the last four years that should give us pause.
The latest in the growing list of questionable results comes from the Democratic Senate primary election in South Carolina on June 8, which demonstrated the dangers of the "just trust us" approach to electronic voting using the same DREs that are used in St. Louis County (the ES&S iVotronic).
In that race, Alvin Greene, a candidate unknown to most South Carolina voters, garnered 59 percent of the primary vote, yet he ran no campaign, made no claim to any policy positions and opposed well-known former state legislator Vic Rawl, who actively campaigned and raised funds. In a race in which 86 percent of the mailed-in paper ballots favored Rawl, the unknown candidate Greene received 75 percent or more of the vote in many precincts statewide using the DREs. This is unprecedented — even for popular candidates.
Rawl has contested the results; however, in DREs, every record of the vote is under the control of the software. Therefore, as long as the software generates consistent records — even if inaccurate — election fraud is difficult to prove.
One might think that despite the potential for undetected fraud posed by DREs, at least they are cheaper than paper ballots. However, the cost of operating them is actually much more expensive than a paper-ballot system. St. Louis County's election expenditures in comparable years (two presidential elections) were $6.5 million in 2004 (without DREs) and $7.5 million in 2008 (with DREs), a 15 percent increase.
Although DREs do lower some costs, such as the cost of printing ballots, they aren't nearly enough to offset the costs of annual DRE software licensing fees, specialized programmers, support staff and required air-conditioned warehousing. Nor do DREs make voting quicker. A DRE may well be faster than a hand-marked paper ballot for a computer-literate voter, but when lines are long, as in a big turnout for a presidential elections, it's much quicker to hand out pens for marking paper ballots than to wait for additional voting machines to be delivered to the polls.
For the past two years, the non-partisan group Missourians for Honest Elections has promoted legislation to abandon DRE voting in Missouri, as many states have done. This year, the bill was introduced on the first day of the session and went to House Speaker Ron Richard for committee assignment. But, despite strong bipartisan support and calls from voters from around the state in favor of its passage, the speaker never assigned it to a committee.
One can only wonder why a bill that would help ensure the integrity of Missouri's elections, save money, as well as speed up the lines at the polls would be prevented from moving forward.
With Missouri facing August primary elections without the benefit of this much-needed legislation, election authorities should act on their own by choosing to conduct the upcoming elections with optically scanned hand-marked paper ballots, and reserving the DREs only for disabled voters who request them.
The continued practice of "just trust us" elections puts Missouri at risk of becoming the next South Carolina.
Cynthia Richards and Phillip Michaels are on the board of directors of Missourians for Honest Elections. Ms. Richards also serves as president.