Election Day! How Much Do You Trust Electronic Voting Machines?

Posted on November 6, 2012

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Doesn’t it seem like we rush to have the latest, glitziest, shiniest new thing, often without considering its drawbacks and disadvantages?  Every new thing is the “wave of the future” and we want to get there first.  We rarely seem to consider whether the “wave of the future” is really an improvement or not.  Case in point:  the iPhone phenomenon.  Customers will wait in line for hours to have that newest model as soon as it hits stores, only to discover that there are battery problems… or antenna problems… or optical problems.  But then we rush out to buy the next-generation iPhone after that.

Voting machines are no different.  Twelve years ago, there was much angst over the Presidential election, especially in Florida with its notoriously confusing punch ballot and questions over how to count the incompletely punched votes (remember “hanging chads”?).  So Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), intending to eliminate confusion and make voting easier, clearer, and more accessible.

So of course this became a clarion call to rush headlong into the arms of various companies taking advantage of the newly accelerated market for electronic voting machines.  For the life of me, why “easier voting” has to mean “electronic” is beyond me.  I had imagined that they would come up with easy, obvious paper ballots and fat, obvious markers, kind of the same idea as those oversized cell phones aimed at seniors.  Silly me.

Did we get reliable, secure, easy-to-use, accurate machines?  No.  No, we did not.  We got the 2006 Ohio elections, where Diebold’s machines introduced numerous problems, likely due to corrupted databases on the machines.  We got the 2006 Florida elections, where 18,000 votes mysteriously went missing in Sarasota County.  We got the 2008 DC City Council election, where there were thousands more votes tallied than actual voters.   We got the 2009 Rapid City, South Dakota election, where machines added thousands of extra votes to the tally.  There’s more, but you get the idea.   Ironically, as CNN’s Doug Gross notes,

As cumbersome and unsightly as Florida’s recount was, at least it was a recount. With electronic voting, analysts say that if there’s a question about vote totals, there is little to do other than press “Enter” again and let the same computer system that counted the votes the first time count them again.

Electronic data is highly ephemeral in nature and easily corrupted or lost through malfunctions. Worse, it can be just as easily manipulated with trace evidence which is technically difficult to notice, much less identify, analyze and prove.  Further, the otherwise desirable ability to store vast amounts of data on a small device has the undesirable consequence that a vast amount of data can be lost forever with a misplaced cartridge or damaged hard drive.  And it’s pretty hard to do a recount or answer a challenge when the vote record evaporates without a trace.

Some election officials insist that voting machines are secure and any errors are more likely due to voter confusion than to machine error or tampering.  Now, I am sure they are completely impartial [snort!], but even if voter error were the only problem, it still means that the system is just plain too complicated.  Whether the machines confuse the voter, have ordinary errors, or are tampered with, the effect is the same: votes denied.

By now you may have guessed that I am a big advocate of paper ballots, or at the very least, a solid, reliable paper trail.  The 2002 HAVA needs to include a requirement for paper ballots and permanent markers everywhere. It would be preferable to have to hire more election workers and wait longer for the election results than to question whether our votes really mean anything.

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