March 22, 2001 11:00 pm

Officials should delay

buying ballot scanners

Union County and the six other counties in Oregon that use punch-card ballots in elections should not rush into purchasing new ballot-counting equipment, but should wait for the Internet to be further explored as a voting option.

Secretary of State Bill Bradbury says he would like to see chads, the little paper byproducts of punch card ballots, banished from Oregon elections for good. House Bill 2587, offered by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Hillsboro, would do exactly that by 2004.

The pregnant, dimpled and hanging chads are what caused such a fuss in Florida in November. Democratic presidential contender Al Gore thought he could pick up more votes and possibly win the election if chads were cleaned fully from the ballots in precincts where the majority of voters presumably supported him. Chads, not fully punched from the ballot, could close the hole and not register a vote for a candidate when fed into a counting machine.

Oregon has a superior system in processing its punch-card ballots. Election board members inspect the ballots and remove any obvious hanging chads from them before they are counted.

If HB 2587 is approved, Union, Umatilla, Clackamas, Lane, Linn, Polk and Washington counties would be required to have some other ballot system in place. Some county officials are considering buying optical scanners, which read the pencil or pen marks that people make on their ballots.

But how expensive will it be to put this new equipment in place? And who would foot the bill for the seven counties: local, state or U.S. taxpayers, or a combination of all of them?

It seems likely that citizens will eventually be casting their votes on computers, using the Internet. A voter could use his or her home computer, or could report to a public place like a library, school or courthouse to cast their ballots on the Internet.

Election officials want to make sure that a secure system is in place before computer voting is allowed. A fraud-proof system might take five or more years to develop, but the technology and procedures eventually will be there to allow citizens to vote with confidence on the Net.

Meanwhile, it could be wasteful for Oregon counties to fork out thousands of dollars to purchase new optical scanner voting systems. Those of us in the punch-card counties should be patient, be willing to put up with the old method for a few more years and wait for the superior computer-based system to be put in place.