Ballot backup needed

After two presidential elections in which the outcome has hinged on results in states with ballot irregularities, the nation should have devised a dependable voting system. But with another presidential election just around the corner, there is no certainty that will happen.

The biggest balloting nightmare occurred in Florida in 2000, where the phrase "hanging chads" entered the American lexicon. Four years later, Ohio was the site of broken machines, voter undercounts and allegations of voter fraud. In both cases, the result played a significant role in determining who the next president would be.

For decades, the mishmash of different state voting systems has not caused significant problems in national elections. Elections haven't been close enough since Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 to worry much about the accuracy of the vote totals in individual states.

But with the calamities that occurred in 2000 and 2004, and the development of technology that allows digital, ballot-free voting, the demand has arisen for a uniform national system. Two years ago, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which banned punch-card ballots and forced states to invest millions in new voting machines.

Sometime this month, Congress is expected to take up a new measure, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, which would require individual, voter-verified paper ballots at all polling places nationwide. Only systems with no paper ballots would have to be replaced or upgraded by November 2008, but that covers 19 states, including South Carolina, and the district of Columbia. South Carolina is one of six states that would have to revamp voting systems statewide.

We can't blame states for complaining. This amounts to an 11th-hour unfunded federal mandate barely a year before the next election.

Nonetheless, we think a paper ballot as a backup to the electronic voting machines is absolutely necessary. A scannable, durable, accessible paper ballot both reassures voters that their votes were cast as intended and serves as a reliable means to audit election results in the event of a challenge.

We also worry that electronic voting devices are too susceptible to tampering. No one has yet made a computer that could not be hacked, and, without backup, altered voting results could be undetectable.

States apparently will be asked to bear the cost of making the necessary changes. Congress should allocate funds to at least help with the cost.

But the risk of another balloting meltdown is too great to ignore. Observers note that nearly every county in Pennsylvania, a likely swing state in the next election, has paperless voting systems. If vote counts there are challenged, there is no way to audit the results.

Whoever has to pay for it, the nation needs a reliable paper trail before the next election.