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Burdens of Proof

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As officials of Shelby County government prepare to take their brief holiday sabbatical, they'll find two bags of switches under their festive trees. Both contain troublesome issues that have to be resolved no later than January.

One issue is that of the state Senate election. Everybody knows by now that two of the ballots cast in a North Memphis precinct in this year's District 29 special election belonged to dead voters. Besides those two voters, there were other ballots that county election commissioner Greg Duckett now considers suspicious. Duckett has acknowledged, too, that the persistence of deceased persons on the voter rolls is an ongoing problem.

Obviously, given these and other irregularities, the state Senate will be hard pressed to seat either the presumed Democratic "winner," Ophelia Ford, or her Republican opponent, Terry Roland. One emerging option would involve the Senate voiding the election and calling for a new one. Meanwhile, the Shelby County Commission would appoint an interim senator -- who might well be a Republican, given the GOP's 7-6 majority on the commission -- to be followed by a new and properly supervised special election, mandated by state government for later in the spring. Though this solution would engender new expense for the taxpayers, we frankly don't see a fairer alternative.

The crisis in District 29 underscores the need for care and wisdom in the other issue now at hand: the joint selection by the county Election Commission and the Shelby County Commission of new voting machines for the 2006 elections.

Two manufacturers are in the running: the Diebold Corporation and Election Systems and Software. Both are experienced in the field, though there are important distinctions, among them that Diebold, which focuses these days on automated teller machines, makes voting machines as something of a sideline, while ES & S specializes exclusively in election machinery.

Beyond that, there is the undeniable fact that Diebold has been at the center of a number of recent election controversies around the country. The company, which faces several lawsuits challenging its ability to guarantee the accuracy of its machines, is also experiencing financial setbacks and a case of revolving chairs in company management. This disorder at the top results both from the class-action suits and charges that corporate officers have been de facto campaign partners of President Bush's and other Republican campaigns. More ominously, after a Florida election official recently ran tests on the company's products, Diebold was specifically accused of making machines that can easily be hacked.

One other factor weighing against Diebold: Two local activist groups, the Democracy Project and the Center for Peace and Justice, have endorsed the ES & S machines for, among other things, their easier fit with Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machinery. We think VVPAT should be authorized by the state for next year's county elections to avoid the very uncertainty that now mars the results in District 29.

While both companies vying for the contract should be required to meet exacting standards, the reality is that Diebold is toting considerably more baggage, and that will no doubt be factored into the final decision.

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