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Touchy Touch-Screen Voting

Since the 2002 presidential election squeaker in Florida, much of the money allotted by Congress to improve the election system has gone to buy electronic voting machines, including touch screens.

Estimates suggest that the use of such equipment will have jumped nearly 30 percent between November 2002 and November 2004. Election officials in 34 states have bought such machines, affecting roughly a third of registered voters.

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The machines are easy to use, allow for ballots in multiple languages, and can be tailored to persons with disabilities. Tests show they can produce error-free results with concerted efforts to remove glitches.

But naysayers contend that electronic voting won't help states make needed progress on election reform. Some experts complain that computer hackers could disrupt the election, and have even persuaded six states, including Illinois and California, to postpone installing electronic voting equipment. That's too bad.

True, programming error, equipment malfunction, and tampering are issues to contend with in such technology. Touch-screen ballots in three Maryland counties didn't even show a Senate race in the state's spring primary. But problems with any form of voting are nothing new. The old paper methods of voting had their huge share of problems, most notably the punch-card ballots.

Generally, the primaries this year showed how well electronic voting can work. In Michigan, for instance, the Democratic primary went off smoothly, and some voters even successfully voted online.

As the country makes election-related adjustments, and especially with the potential for another close election, building in redundancy will help allow for mistakes to be corrected.

Actions some states have taken, such as requiring that electronic voting machines also generate a paper trail (at least two bills in Congress would mandate this), should help allay worries for a while. Audio devices that let voters confirm choices over a set of headphones also can help.