Uneasy About Silicon Ballots

It was an exhausting yet amazing experience to serve as an Election Officer today.  I have gained a profound respect for the folks who operate and manage the election process with integrity and good intention.  Yet in my experience today I also gathered some anecdotes to support my general skepticism about the robustness of the electoral process.  Don’t get me wrong – our crew did a great job today, votes were cast, and the process went smoothly.  But I nonetheless left my polling station this evening with a less than perfect faith in our voting process.  Why?  There is the slight concern  about the adequacy of our process for verifying a voter’s identification, and there’s the lack of clarity about what we Election Officers were actually swearing/affirming (the oath/affirmation I signed last week was different than the one I was given this morning), but the most disconcerting element of this election process is the electronic voting system.

You see, a voter makes selections for various races and ultimately casts a vote on the touchscreen of a computer.  The computer records the vote tally for each race on a small USB drive, much like the one many of us wear around our necks or on a keychain.  The problem with this system is that there is no paper trail recording each voter’s ballot.  There is no way to go back and recreate a particular ballot at a particular machine for review purposes.  Furthermore, there is no way to verify that if a voter selects "A" the computer actually records "A" in its memory.  All we have, at the end of the night, is a total count of votes for each race.  We can’t go back and actually look at the ballots of individual voters.

But with a system that creates a physical voting record – a paper ballot or a computer system that generates a paper trail, for example – we can go back and look at each ballot, set them out on a table, and count them by hand.  We can verify that X number of people voted for SMITH, and Y number of people voted for JACKSON, because we can sort the ballots that the voters themselves completed.  On a computer, I can’t do that.  I have to trust that the computer’s count is correct.  I cannot verify the numbers the computer gives me with any external count, for there is nothing physical, nothing tangible for me to count.

What I can do is verify that the number of people who checked-in at the registration books with the Election Officers matches the number of votes cast on the computers.  At our polling station, the number of people who signed-in matched the number of votes cast on the computers.  We know that the raw numbers match up – no ballot was lost – but the main problem remains: voters cannot verify that their selections are recorded correctly on the computer, since no hard copy, no physical specimen is created.  I think this is a problem.  I’ve had enough odd computer and ATM errors that make me doubt the perfect integrity of a computer system and a silicon microchip.

Again – this was a great experience and I am grateful for the people who make this process go so well.  But in our quest for faster election results for our 24-hour cable news cycle, I fear that we might be creating an opening for technological failures – or worse, technological tampering – to do significant harm to our democracy.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Politics, Society, Vocation. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Uneasy About Silicon Ballots

  1. MA says:

    Your concerns about electronic voting are shared by many others. However, the good news is that our government is working hard to address these concerns. The “Election Assistance Commission” (http://www.eac.gov) was created by congress to deal with these issues. From their site:
    “The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is an independent, bipartisan commission created by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002.
    EAC is operating the federal government’s first voting system certification program. It issues guidance about HAVA, adopts voluntary voting system guidelines, audits the use of HAVA funds, and provides best practices and resources to election officials throughout the nation.”
    They have been working on an extensive set of standards to address electronic voting security issues. They were just released for public comment here: http://www.eac.gov/vvsg

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