On the surface, it looks like a battle between Ophelia Ford and Terry Roland. In truth, it’s a battle about the credibility of the Shelby County Election Commission.

The Senate hearing on the complaint filed by Roland is the sort of dispute that the rest of Tennessee loves. It reinforces all the preconceived notions about politics here and the sense that Boss Crump never quite died (at least he’s not still voting).

Already, information has been produced about a dead man who managed to get to the polls, several felons who voted although their rights hadn’t been restored, a number of people who voted after moving out of the district and more. While the dispute cries out for a grown-up to take charge and do what’s needed to get a fair election, it most of all cries out for the Election Commission to explain how such blatant violations take place on its watch.

Actually, it’s probably hard for the members of the Election Commission to grasp the full impact of these revelations on its public reputation. After all, they are plugged deeply into the political scene and engage in a variety of “inside baseball” that few of us understand. For people who are such insiders, it’s often hard to see that something is broken; the tendency is to deny mistakes and defend the status quo.

Hopefully, the Election Commission will take some time and get out into the community and research the damage that has been done to its already faltering image. The cumulative effect of years and years of allegations, of ballot boxes that materialize at the last minute and of widespread knowledge that the dearly departed have been casting ballots for years is taking its toll on the Election Commission’s reputation (not to mention the curious silence of local prosecutors when these violations come to light).

This time, it’s not likely that the storm clouds will quietly vanish into the horizon. This time, there is a losing candidate with an infinite capacity to pursue this issue and in addition, there are some influential African-American ministers in the district who, tired of the Ford machine or at least this particular version of it, actually gave Roland unprecedented pulpit time in their churches in the heart of Democratic Party strongholds and who now argue for a system that actively protects the integrity of the ballot.

In other words, the times call for the Election Commission to drive a stake into the ground and take firm actions to reassure the public of the fairness of local elections, and this should begin with the decisions to buy 1,500 new voting machines that have paper trails and a technological backup.

Already, rumors abound. The Election Commission, already bruised from the humiliating facts of the Ford-Roland campaign, is under suspicion, and if it stops short of getting the most technologically advanced voting machines, the ones that ensure the greatest possible accountability, look for a large segment of the public to howl as never before.

In a few days, the decision on the voting machines will be made. It’s a test the Election Commission can’t afford to fail.

To understand the dimensions of this issue, we reprint a blog from November 2 about the voting machine decision that the Election Commission will make in a matter of days:

Soon, the Shelby County Election Commission will decide what kind of voting machines it will buy to replace the geriatric Shouptronic machines that have been used here for two decades.

The Election Commission needs about 1,500 new machines. The financial cost will be millions of dollars. The cost of the wrong decision is incalculable, resulting in a lack of voter confidence that undermines the integrity of election results.

At issue is whether the Shelby County Election Commission officials will opt for voting machines with the safeguard of a paper back-up. In this age of computer wizardry, there is the prevailing feeling by many that such a fail-safe system of accountability is unnecessary.

It seems like a good time for county election commission members to read a recently released General Accounting Office (GAO) which found “significant concerns” about security, access, and hardware, as well as weak security management practices by voting machine vendors.

The report identified specific problems that included:

• Problems with security

• Problems in access controls

• Problems with the machine controls

• Weak security practices by machine vendors

In addition, the GAO cited multiple examples of failures in actual elections that resulted in undervoting, the display of the wrong ballots and lost votes.

“Security experts and some election officials have expressed concern that tests currently performed by independent testing authorities and state and local election officials do not adequately assess electronic voting system security and reliability,” the report said. “These concerns are amplified by what some perceive as a lack of transparency in the testing process.”

While electronic voting holds promise, according to the report, the survey found some voting systems did not encrypt cast ballots or system audit logs, and it was possible to alter both without being detected; it was possible to alter the files that determine how a ballot looks and works so that the votes for one candidate could be recorded for a different candidate, and vendors installed uncertified versions of voting system software at the local level.

In the U.S. today, the majority of elections use one of two types of electronic voting systems: optical scan systems and direct recording electronic (DRE) systems. Optical scan systems use electronic technology to tabulate paper ballots (about 35 percent of registered voters cast ballots on these machines in the 20004 election). An optical scan system is made up of computer-readable paper ballots, appropriate marking devices, privacy booths and a computerized tabulation device. The ballots are tabulated by optical-mark-recognition equipment which senses the marks on the ballots.

The DRE’s capture votes electronically without the use of paper ballots (about 29 percent of voters used this technology in the 2004 elections). DREs have two primary models – push button or touch screen. Touch screen is the newest model, and with it, all information is presented on a single full-face ballot. Some systems tally votes with a removable storage media taken from the machine to a central location to be recorded. Others can be configured to electronically transmit the vote totals from the polling place to a central location.

It seems probable that the Shelby County Election Commission will vote to purchase the DRE machines with touch-screen technology. A word of warning: the GAO reported security flaws in some DRE systems, such as one model that failed to password-protect the supervisor functions; the same PIN programmed into all supervisor cards nationwide; unsecured smart and memory cards that allowed voters to cast multiple ballots; one model allowed its locks to be easily picked; and various lapses in security.

The problems paint a powerful case for buying machines with a “voter-verified paper audit trail.” While many DRE voting machines claim to have an “audit” function, it leaves much to be desired, because it is actually just the results from the voting machine’s computer, and the record can’t tell you whether votes have been tampered with.

The voter-verified paper audit trail has been endorsed by the national commission on election reform, and in light of the persistent reports and rumors about election fraud in Memphis and Shelby County, it would seem to be an investment in voter confidence that could not be more timely.

Already, 10 states require voter-verified paper audit trails for new voting machines on the basis that it is the only way to ensure that each vote is counted.

The last time the Shelby County Election Commission bought voting machines, they lasted for 20 years. And that’s precisely why this is a decision that the Election Commission has to get right.