Utah has wisely waited to switch to electronic voting until several other states led the way. In a world where software glitches and paper jams cause problems every day at work and at home, there was no sense trusting the most important public act of a democracy to an unproven technology.
But now the state ought to wait just a little bit longer. The vendor it chose, Diebold, is having serious problems.
A federal deadline is looming, as state officials are quick to remind critics. Counties have to comply with a new law by the 2006 general election, and the state went through a long process before deciding to invest about $27 million in Diebold. But surely there is time still to reconsider a decision before an election disaster ensues.
Such a disaster could harm Utah voters far more than missing a deadline.
California's secretary of state recently ordered a mock election to check Diebold's accuracy. Original reports from this test indicated that about 10 machines experienced paper jams. Diebold officials brushed this off as 10 problems out of roughly 10,000 ballots cast, and they said the machines still registered each vote cast. The machines make printouts that are merely confirmations of votes.
But a report Wednesday in the Oakland Tribune found that the problems were far more serious than that. Almost one-third of all the machines in the mock election experienced problems of one sort or another, with 19 of them either freezing or going blank a total of 21 times.
It's hard to imagine an act more important to a free society than that of casting a ballot. Public confidence in that system has to be beyond question. But if voters find their screens turning blue or see "illegal operation" or "fatal exception error," they will naturally wonder whether their original ballot counted, or whether they need to vote again. Will the machine somehow count both votes? In each such situation in California, a Diebold technician had to reboot the machine.
Utah officials say they are standing by their decision to go with Diebold. They haven't spoken with California officials, but they have received assurances from Diebold that the problems will be repaired before November 2006. We don't doubt the company says it will do better. It would rather not lose a lucrative contract.
Unlike during the years leading up to the state's decision to award a contract, the state now seems to feel it is running out of time to reconsider its choice.
But California's counties face the same federal deadlines as Utah counties. If they feel there is time to reconsider, why can't Utah do so, as well?