By BETTY IRELAND
CHARLESTON -- The 2008 election cycle is over, and by all accounts we had a good election in both May and November.
Lines were not overly long, no machines blew up, and people were pretty much satisfied with their overall voting experience. But back in 2000, who could have realized what a difference some Florida chads would make.
When I took office in 2005, the use of electronic touch screen machines, along with optical scan and paper, was already set in state code and also in West Virginia's State HAVA Plan. Congress had already passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, and mandated that states get rid of punch cards and levered voting machines, although we in West Virginia had precious few problems with either.
The State Purchasing Division issued a request for proposal for a vendor to provide what state code mandated, and a bi-partisan committee (of which I was NOT a member) reviewed, evaluated and scored the responses of four vendors, ultimately recommending to Purchasing that the contract be awarded to Election Systems and Software.
Counties had the choice of an optical scan system, a touch screen system with a paper trail, or a "plain" paper system.
We know there have been mechanical problems with the touch screen as well as the optical scan systems, but my office, as do the county clerks, stand by our election results, because of our state's stringent testing laws. We know that in 2007, Ohio and California conducted in-depth tests on the "innards" of both these systems to seek out security problems.
We know conspiracy theories abound that electronic voting machines are being used by Republicans to steal elections. (If that were the case, wouldn't we see more Republicans actually winning in West Virginia?)
Both Ohio and California used touch screen machines in the '08 general election. We read their studies and learned a great deal about how better to safeguard our own touch screen machines. We understand that Maryland will stop using touch screen machines by 2010 and Virginia will get rid of their touch screens as soon as they wear out and will move to a paper ballot.
Significantly, neither Maryland nor Virginia's machines have the voter verified paper trail that by law is equipped on all of West Virginia's touch screen voting machines.
No wonder people are confused and concerned.
But if public confidence in electronic voting machines, either in West Virginia or nationwide, becomes terribly eroded, here are some suggestions for what we can do regarding our voting machines:
1. Counties could choose to get rid of touch screens and purchase optical scan systems or use plain paper systems. (Thirty-five of our counties use touch screens and their voters like them; are their commissioners willing to scrap these machines and spend millions on a new system?);
2. The West Virginia Legislature could outlaw the use of electronic voting equipment altogether but would have to find some way to pay for new systems, so counties would not be saddled with yet again another unfunded mandate.
3. West Virginia could explore the possibility of "voting by mail" such as they do in Oregon and Washington. (But given our state's history of election fraud, do we REALLY want to trust putting 1.4 million ballots in the mail?); or
4. West Virginia could pressure the federal Election Assistance Commission to get moving on certifying upgrades that all voting machine manufacturers have been waiting on for over 2 years, conduct a review of the new, improved versions, and then go from there.
Of course, Congress could eventually decide that all states have to use a certain type of voting system, and we'd have no say in the matter. But that's what the Feds did to us in 2002 with the now much-questioned HAVA, and for obvious reasons, I strongly believe that Congress should stay out of our elections, period.
Fair and clean elections cannot tolerate a lack of public confidence and trust in the very systems that make the process work.
Therefore, before my term expires, I will begin dialogue with county clerks and legislators about how the state can avoid the ugliness and uncertainty we had leading up to the 2008 General Election. The integrity of our democratic system of election demands it, and no voter should ever doubt the sanctity of his or her vote.
Ireland is West Virginia's Secretary of State.