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My Turn: Ensuring voter confidence in Alaska's elections

Posted: Tuesday, August 10, 2004

One of the changes I looked forward to soon after my inauguration as lieutenant governor was ensuring that Alaska's visually impaired, blind and disabled voters would be able to vote secret, independent and verifiable ballots. With former Rep. Joe Green, I sponsored legislation providing for this in Alaska. As lieutenant governor, I have directed the Division of Elections to ensure Alaskans' confidence in the integrity of the election process through fair, accurate and honest elections. Federal law has helped and hindered these goals.

The federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 was passed to improve elections in the United States by: creating a new federal agency to serve as a clearinghouse for election administration information; providing funds to states to improve election administration and replace outdated voting equipment; and creating minimum standards for states to follow.

HAVA requires every state to have at least one Digital Recording Electronic system, better known as a touch screen unit, in each precinct by 2006. This voting machine provides audio translation of the ballots and more easily accessible screens to assist those who are blind and disabled in voting without another person's help. In response to state law and the HAVA mandate, the Division of Elections purchased 100 touch screen units to use in the 2004 elections. Its intent was to conduct a "pilot program" with the units available in a limited supply.

During the past year some have raised concerns about the integrity of the touch screen machines. Although the system Alaska has purchased has been tested in independent laboratories and certified by the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED), the Division of Elections will delay implementation of these machines until after the Aug. 24 primary election.

Some critics of touch screen units have suggested that these machines should produce a "voter verifiable paper trail." Although our new touch screen machines have the ability to be modified to provide this record, the technology has not yet been certified for use by the Federal Election Assistance Commission or NASED. Some states have reported additional challenges with touch screen machines that produce a voter verifiable paper record. According to the Election Administration Report, "mandating voter verifiable paper audit trails at this point would introduce more problems than it would solve." Indeed, now many of the people who initially promoted voter verifiable paper records are beginning to admit that perhaps it is not the answer. I believe the technology the state currently owns is reliable, provided the state tests the machines before they are secured and provided to voters.

Exit polls in areas where this equipment is used show that voters appreciate the technology. In preparation for their use in Alaska, key Division of Elections employees participated in a roll-out of these machines in a California county with three times the number of registered voters than we have in Alaska. The only equipment glitches were related to additional technology that has not been purchased by the state of Alaska. Voters overall were pleased with the machines.

Voter confidence in elections is so important that the division is willing to delay implementing use of the touch screen units. My commitment remains unchanged. I will work to ensure that all voters will be able to vote a secure, private ballot.

• Loren Leman is lieutenant governor of Alaska and oversees the Division of Elections.



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