By David Mendell
Tribune staff reporter
Published June 4, 2004
Chicago elections officials are joining a nationwide movement to keep the maligned punch-card voting system rather than adopting electronic balloting.
"Obviously, punch-card voting is not the wave of the future, but perhaps it is not the devil that it has been portrayed," Lance Gough, executive director of the city's Board of Election Commissioners, testified Thursday before a federal commission studying voting problems nationwide.
Chicago officials are seeking proposals for new voting equipment, and that request includes all systems available: punch-card, lever-pulling, optical scanning and other electronic systems.
After the 2000 presidential election highlighted the maladies of punch-card voting, the federal government has offered local election agencies millions of dollars to purchase electronic systems. Chicago and other communities, however, are not convinced that electronic systems are technologically ready, even though one election official in Florida called the punch card "1800s technology."
"We are not going to rush out and buy something and create a bigger problem than we have," said Tom Leach, a spokesman for the Chicago Elections Board. "But we're under deadlines from the federal government, and the federal government has these millions of dollars, and you have to meet these deadlines or lose that money."
Some voters and elections officials across the country question the viability of electronic voting systems, which gained popularity after the punch-card problems in the 2000 election.
But since then, computer scientists, activists and voting experts have warned about glitches and computer malfunctions involving touch-screen voting.
Some local elections officials also warned in Thursday's public hearing in Chicago of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission about predatory manufacturers of electronic equipment. Some vendors have pushed local officials to purchase systems that don't offer a verified paper trail and have yet to be properly field tested, the officials said.
Perhaps the most disturbing problem is security. Often private vendors, not public officials, have the technological expertise to make sure electronic systems operate fairly and accurately. Some watchdog groups have charged that machine testing is performed by private companies that have political connections.
"It's quite clear that this process is detailed and complicated," said Gracia Hillman, vice chairwoman of the federal commission. "There are no easy answers and probably no one quick fix that serves all."
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