The e-voting debate brought home

Von Dan Verton

As a reporter who"s covered nearly every twist and turn in this year"s debate over e-voting security and reliability, I evaluated my own voting experience this year more closely than usual.

When I arrived at my local polling place in northern Virginia on Tuesday, I was heartened to find a line of voters unlike any I had seen in the past 20 years. This was great: People were eager to vote; I was eager to vote. But by the time I left, my feelings about the whole experience were quite different.

Lining one side of the small, cramped polling place were eight touch-screen systems developed by Advanced Voting Solutions Inc. One system was not in operation, which not only piqued my interest but also raised my sense of apprehension.

To my surprise, the e-voting system worked flawlessly. The calibration of the screen appeared to be set with pinpoint accuracy. I even did the unthinkable: I hit the "back" button after I had reached the last screen, just to make sure everything was still marked the way I wanted it to be. Again, this raised my heart rate a little. Computers make mistakes too, I kept thinking.

When I scrolled forward again to the last screen, the summary of my vote appeared. Everything looked as it should. I hit the blinking button that said "cast vote." It was gone. Where it went, I can"t tell you.

When I was done, a poll worker handed me a sticker that was about the size of a dime. Printed in small letters were the words, "I voted." This, I thought to myself, is my voter-verifiable paper audit trail.

I took one look back at the flimsy machines, wondering if my vote had really counted. This was, after all, one of the most important elections in recent U.S. history, and looked to be one of the closest.

Afterward, I realized I wanted something more from my voting experience. The machines worked well, and I"m certainly no Luddite. But for this military veteran turned reporter, voting is too important for me to trust to Election Day electrons. We should all demand a little more certainty.

When I got home, the broadcast news networks were showing something similar to what I had been searching for as I left my polling place in Virginia. Men and women in Afghanistan, voting freely for the first time in their lives, were folding paper ballots between their fingers and dropping them into a box. They were smiling.

It was clear to me that they were smiling not only because they were finally getting a say in their nation"s future, but because they felt sure their votes were real.

I"m happy for them. But maybe it"s time that we, the most powerful and technologically advanced nation in the world, insist that our voting experience not only be improved, but be standardized across the country and offer that same tangible reality. I don"t think that"s too much to ask of an industry that has found a way to store the entire contents of the Library of Congress on a chip the size of a 50-cent coin.