Take voting reforms slowly

Published: Monday, July 12 2004 7:29 a.m. MDT

Most of the time, being a pioneer is a good thing. The early developers of the personal computer probably don't regret being out front of a worldwide economic revolution. John Glenn gave the nation a much-needed shot of pride by pioneering human orbits around the earth. And Philo T. Farnsworth may not have liked what producers and writers did to his invention, but his pioneering efforts to create television put him in the history books forever.

But when it comes to new, electronic voting equipment, it's best for Utah to let someone else be the pioneer.

When an invention is forced upon states by the federal government, the line between pioneer and guinea pig can be fine, indeed.

According to federal law, all states have until 2006 to adopt new computerized voting machines. The only trouble is, no one is quite sure at the moment whether an accurate, safe machine truly exists. When it comes to something as fundamental to a democracy as the public's right to vote, it's best not to take chances. Then, too, there is the consideration that any changes are going to cost taxpayers plenty.

Utah decided long ago that it wouldn't put any new technologies into use during this November's general election. That was wise. Now, the state's Voting Equipment Selection Committee has sent out a request for proposals that will result in bids from vendors by Aug. 10. Committee members indicate they will take their time, using security as one of their chief measuring rods. Frankly, the longer they take, the better.

Let other states lead on this one. Let them deal with programming errors, bugs and other equipment failures. In this state, the drive for new voting technologies seems a bit silly.

Most Utah counties still use the type of push-pin punch cards that made Florida famous in 2000. But here, problems have been few, and some county election clerks strongly defend the cards as accurate and reliable. Much has been made about the need to bring voting into the 21st century. The people tooting this horn seem to be willfully ignoring the fact that cheaters in many other endeavors, from identity theft to credit-card fraud, are finding the 21st century much easier pickings than the previous one.

The Florida debacle created such a storm that a general consensus emerged that something had to be done. That something may have been as simple as using a more reliable paper stock for the punch cards.

But regardless, the future is coming. We hope the state will consider the plan Gov. Olene Walker unveiled when she was lieutenant governor, which was to extend Utah's voting period by 10 days and provide for several roving, remote computer stations at which registered voters could cast ballots. By her estimates, this could prompt as many as 30 percent of voters to vote early. That would reduce the crunch on Election Day and save the state millions in the purchase of new equipment.

But even that won't do much good if the equipment and the software aren't completely reliable and secure.

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