Bye, Bye, Touchscreen Voting

More and more states are ditching the touchscreen voting machines they rushed to purchase following the disgraced 2000 presidential vote recount in Florida (news report and analysis from the tech-saavy folks at ars technica available here).  It seems that paper is more reliable than software and microchips.

I have served as an Election Officer – one of those volunteers who asks for your ID, signs you into the poll book, and then explains to you how to use the voting machine – in the past three elections here in Fairfax, Virginia.  We use the touchscreen voting systems in Virginia, and as a voter and as an election officer I haven't been impressed.  The machines are easy to use and easy to tally at the end of the night – you just ask the machine to add up the totals, and it does!  But this magical computer calculation doesn't inspire confidence.  I wrote about this a few months ago in a post Uneasy About Silicon Ballots, following one of the elections I worked:

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.

According the ars technica article:

Critics—including some of us at Ars—had
long warned that electronic voting systems were not ready for prime
time, citing concerns about their lack of transparency, vulnerability
to tampering, and plain bugginess. Finally, states are increasingly
coming to the same conclusion. Last year, Ohio produced a 1,000-page report
cataloging a host of problems with the state's voting machines. Since
then, a glitch blamed on conflicts with anti-virus software initially
caused hundred of votes to be dropped as they were uploaded to tallying
servers. A "top-to-bottom" review
of California's voting systems last year found that hacker "red teams"
were able to easily compromise machines made by Premier, Sequoia, Hart
Intercivic, and Election Systems & Software—leading the state to
decertify the machines.

So to fix the problem states are returning to paper.  But . . . complicating matters is the cost of these voting systems.  From what I understand, Virginia will be using a hybrid system this fall – some paper-based systems, and some touchscreen systems at each polling station.  Why the hybrid?  There simply is not enough time or money to get new paper-based systems in place before November.  That's just sad.  Is dependable democracy too expensive?

Finally . . . some states are considering selling their out-of-favor touchscreen systems to developing countries.  Who says you can't export democracy?  Whether through war or the sale of flawed voting systems, we can and will bring democracy to the world!

I don't think there is some grand conspiracy to rig our elections, but I do think that the systems we use are flawed and inspire apathy rather than confidence.  We owe it to ourselves and to the world to have a fair, transparent, and reliable voting process.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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