if voting could change anything, it wouldn't be legal

I've posted about the deplorable, hackable state of electronic voting machines before. Well, today, you may have already noticed that every blog you read is pointing you at the EFF page on the new IEEE standard committee for voting machines. IEEE set up this standards committee as a reaction to the recent (cough) "irregularities", and what it should be doing is describing a way to make voting machines safe. Instead, it apparently has been co-opted by the voting machine manufacturers, who are codifying their current behavior: making the standard say that they should continue doing exactly what they're doing today.

Cory says:

The standard this committee produces will likely form the basis of the US goverment's voting-machine purchases (as well as those of governments abroad), and if there are holes in the standard today, they will be biting our democracies on the ass for decades. There's never been a clearer demonstration that "architecture is politics."

So go there and fill out EFF's petition.

Relatedly, here's another article about the current state of voting machines. It's somewhat more shrill than other articles on the topic I've read, but it covers exactly the same ground.

The American vote-count is controlled by three major corporate players -- Diebold, ES&S, and Sequoia -- with a fourth, Science Applications International Corporation, coming on strong. These companies have been given billions of dollars by the Bush Regime to complete a sweeping computerization of voting machines nationwide by the 2004 election. These glitch-riddled systems -- many using "touch-screen" technology that leaves no paper trail at all -- are almost laughably open to manipulation, according to corporate whistleblowers and computer scientists at Stanford, Johns Hopkins and other universities.

The technology had a trial run in the 2002 midterm elections. [...] A Florida Democrat who lost a similarly "glitched" local election went to court to have the computers examined -- but the case was thrown out by a judge who ruled that the innards of America's voting machines are the "trade secrets" of the private companies who make them.

Does it seem like a good idea to you that the very mechanism of democracy be controlled by a "trade secret" funded by the controlling presidential administration? Me neither.

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13 Responses:

  1. supersat says:

    Why the hell are we investing in these dumb machines anyway? Going to a polling place to vote seems like the dumbest idea in the world. Oregon has an all vote-by-mail system and it works well. I believe a majority of voters in Washington now vote by mail. Even though it is mostly automated by optical scanners (similar to those fun Scantron tests common in schools), the votes can be hand-counted in case there's any suspicion of a problem with the scanners.

    • volkris says:

      Knowing the failure rate of scantrons doesn't make this seem like a great idea to me...

      Until you allow a voter to directly interface with his electronic record, there will always be a significant margin or error introduced by the translation process.

  2. klarfax says:

    There's a good piece of legislation currently in congress to address this. There's more on the issue here: http://www.verifiedvoting.org

  3. icis_machine says:

    this was soooooooo not on my ieee elections ballot, which by the way is optionally online.

  4. flipzagging says:

    Why do elections have to be efficient, anyway?

    Transparency to everyone in society ought to be the primary value. I would be against a touch-screen system even if it were all based on an open hardware spec with Free/Open software. Just because we've appeased the geek community doesn't mean it's transparent to everyone.

    Paper ballots work. Everyone understands them. They provide a permanent record. They are immune to software glitches, power failures, vendor changes, or even the sudden death of every single "expert" in the election "industry".

    If you want to augment the paper ballots with whizzy scanning and verifying technology, great.

    • volkris says:

      Paper ballots do NOT work because of the margin of error introduced in the handling of them.

      It doesn't really matter what specific style of paper ballots you use, if you count the votes yourself you will miscount, and if you let a computer count them there will be corruption in the interface between the paper and the computer.

      Just because you do things electronically doesn't mean any of the problems you cited are going to exist. With redundant independent counting and such you can reduce the risk of miscoutning to near zero, and with direct electronic placeing of votes you can introduce new, much better voting methods like instant runoff voting in a user friendly manner.

      • flipzagging says:

        They may work less well than some imaginary system. But I think "NOT work" is a bit extreme.

        There are always going to be errors in voting. So the question is what do you trust more to interpret human decisions? Personally I think having human overseers evaluating human-made marks on paper works better. Barring a badly-designed ballot like Florida, the errors that aren't obvious mistakes will just be random and not affect the outcome.

        In an electronic system, the errors at the time of vote-recording look just like real data. And these errors may not be random.

        There's a way we could both get what we want. Have a user-friendly voting machine that spits out a paper ballot. The user interface could make somethling like instant-runoff voting way easier. Once they get the printout, the voter can then verify their choices before dropping it in the ballot box. If there's a power failure, software glitch, or if someone just doesn't want to use the machine, no problem -- break out the pencils.

        I'm not against better voting technology. The problem is, we're all so used to making computer systems where centralization and efficiency are the most important goals, and where hiding the processing details is considered good. But we have to take a minute and think -- hey, that's great for ATMs, but is it really so good for democracy?

        • volkris says:

          So the question is what do you trust more to interpret human decisions?

          I trust machines more, of course. Something that can look through millions of votes with consistency and without personal bias will always appeal to me over any group of people wading through the same votes. That's especially true considering the problems inherent in the humans' physical handling of votes instead of the computers' electronic handling which can be checked for integrity much more easily.

          In an electronic system, the errors at the time of vote-recording look just like real data. And these errors may not be random.

          But there will be almost none in a properly designed system. Paper ballots will have a much higher number of errors at the time of recording, and they will add in even more errors at the time of vote reading no matter how well you design the system. The errors are also just as likely to be skewed.

          I'm still saying to get the paper out of it entirely. But you could have two independent systems running, one to record votes and one to verify them. If the reader sees what the voter thinks he voted then he could submit his vote with confidence that the record will show the proper vote.

          Once you have a list of all votes with that confidence you can count them as many times as you want without any loss of precision, unlike with the paper ballots which often quickly lost capacity to hold the record through multiple counts.

    • jwz says:

      Why do elections have to be efficient, anyway? Transparency to everyone in society ought to be the primary value.

      I agree, but efficiency doesn't mean only "speed"; it also means "cost". It's always nice when govts spend less of our money, after all.

      Paper ballots work.

      Paper ballots aren't all that accurate either. If done right, an electronic system might increase accuracy.

      Or it might just make it way, way easier to cheat. Which is what we have now.