Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Voting Machines

Okay, so I work with computers, and have for most of my life. I know a lot about them. I know enough to know that I will never ever vote on one. I'm going to explain my reasoning, and you won't even need to a smidgen about computers to understand it.

When you vote on a voting machine, especially one that doesn't print out a record of your vote, your vote basically goes into this box where who-knows-what happens, and then the box spits out a number. That's the idea, right? Easier to vote by pushing a button, and less money wasted on counting paper ballots. Well, there's a problem with that theory. Several of them, actually. I'll go through them, one by one.

A) Inability to Monitor Voting Machine Behavior

When you vote on a voting machine, your vote goes into some hole where you can't see what's going on, and at the end of the day, the vote totals are spit out of the machine for an election official.

So lets say we've chosen someone to count votes for us by hand. We'll call him Geoff. Voting on a machine would be akin to handing Geoff the ballots, sending him alone into a locked room, and having him come out an hour later to read a piece of paper that has the vote totals. Would you trust him with your vote?

But wait, it gets worse.

B) Inability to inspect the voting machines

Many of the companies who make voting machines won't tell you, under any circumstances what happens inside those machines. They even go to court to keep you from knowing what happens to your vote.

So now our friend Geoff, after counting the votes and presenting you with the total, is asked how he counted the vote, how careful he was, whether he double-checked his work, etc. But he refuses to tell you. If you tell him you're sending someone in to watch him count, he tells you that you'll have to take him to court before he will allow that. But that's okay, your vote can be checked if there's any doubt about how Geoff handled it, right?

Not so fast.

C) No Individual Vote Records

Many voting machines do not print out any kind of record of your vote. So when your vote goes into this black hole, there is never any record of the way that you voted. All knowledge of individual votes is lost forever.

So our friend Geoff, after spending an hour counting the votes, emerges from his locked room with a box of shredded ballots along with his vote totals. If you ask him to show you the votes so you can make sure everything is in order, he hands you the shredded ballots and tells you to figure it out yourself. Nice guy, this Geoff.

Oh, but it gets better.

D) No True Vote Recounts

Because there is no record of these votes, recounting the vote from paperless voting machines is a problem. In particular, when asked to recount the votes, many of these machines simply repeat the totals they have already calculated. There is no record, so what are the machines supposed to do? Go back to the voters and ask them what buttons they pressed?

So when our friend Geoff, standing in front of you with his box of shredded ballots and his sheet of paper containing the vote totals, is asked to recount the votes, he simply looks at the piece of paper and repeats the same number he gave you before. Real helpful. It couldn't get much worse, could it?

Oh, but it could.

E) Error-Prone Voting Machines

Computers break all the time. Even computers designed for the most important applications are prone to errors and failures. Knowing their complexity myself, I'm constantly amazed that they work at all. So why wouldn't this be true of computerized voting machines? In fact, it has been demonstrated several times that voting machines in use in the upcoming election are error-prone.

So our friend Geoff who counted our votes in a locked room and then shredded the ballots? Well, his school records got leaked. So what sort of grades did he get in math? He failed basic arithmetic. Several times. Good thing he's the one counting our votes.

F) Visible Election-Time Voting Machine Errors

Yes, some of these voting machines seem to be so error-prone that the errors are occurring visibly as people vote! Several reports have emerged in the past few days of votes spontaneously and visibly flipping from Obama to McCain, or for choices just not registering at all when touched. If those are the errors that you can see, I wonder what could be going on that you can't see...

So not only is our good friend Geoff bad at math, but his vision is poor as well. Sometimes when he's looking at a vote marked for one candidate, he thinks it's marked for the other one. So he happily adds up his totals before shredding the ballots. Well, at least Geoff doesn't have his own political motivations, right?

Well, maybe...

G) Biased Voting Machine Manufacturers

It has been suggested on several occasions that some of the companies that make these voting machines are biased toward one party or another. The most damning example of this is in 2003 when Wally O'Dell, the CEO of Diebold Election Systems (since renamed to Premiere Election Systems) said this in a letter to Republican Party officials: "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year." Greeeeat...

So not only is Geoff bad at math, shredding ballots, and refusing to let anyone know how he counted, but his boss is assuring people that he will do delivering votes to one of the candidates. Let's hope Geoff isn't excessively concerned about job security. Or angry mobs.

Oh, but believe it or not, it gets worse. In fact, this last point, in my opinion is the most disturbing of them all.

H) Easily-Hackable Voting Machines

Oh, yes. Believe-you-me, people know how to hack into these things. There have been many reports on the low security of these things, and people have come out on many, many occasions saying how easy they are to hack and even providing instructions and videos to prove it. They can be hacked either while the machines are being assembled, or while the hacker is standing in the voting booth. You can even buy used voting machines online to practice with! This is truly frightening. How are we to trust our votes to these machines when tampering with them is so easy?

So here's Geoff's full story:

Geoff has had vision problems all of his life. However, he has decided to make do without glasses or contacts, because he could see "good enough". He is also a bit slow, having failed basic arithmetic several times. Later in his life, he was hired by a big donor to one of the major candidates to be the person who counts our votes. He was given the box of votes and sent onto a locked room alone with no cameras. He sets the box down on the floor, grabs a handful of ballots, and then starts counting. While he is doing this, several people sneak into this room through the air vent and start rifling through the box of ballots (Geoff is a bit hard of hearing too). As Geoff squints hard to see whether a particular ballot is a vote for one candidate or another, the stealthy intruders replace a big chunk of the ballots in the box with some they brought with them, and sneak back out through the air vent. Some of the election officials outside hear the intruders banging around in the vents and become suspicious. When Geoff has finished counting (he's pretty sure he got it right), he writes the vote totals on a piece of paper and begins running the ballots through a shredder. When he finishes that, he emerges from the room with his sheet of vote totals and shredded ballots, which he reports to the waiting election officials. When the suspicious election officials ask to see the ballots to make sure they were the right ones, he hands them the box of ballot-shreds. When they ask him for a recount, he simply reads the totals off of the piece of paper again. When they ask him what went on inside the locked room, he says they'll have to take him to court to find out.

Would you trust your vote to Geoff?

Now I'm not saying that every voting machine have all of these problems, but they all have some of them. And not only the touch-screen voting machines that the media talks about. I'm talking about any computerized device responsible for totaling votes. Touch-screen machines, optical ballot counters, all of it. In my opinion, we really should be doing what Canada does and hand-counting paper ballots. Nearly every study shows that this results in the highest accuracy, and it probably wouldn't be much more expensive than spending thousands of dollars on a voting machine that you have to constantly upgrade and repair. And even if it is a lot more expensive, so be it. It's worth the expense.

So what can you do?

1. Always vote on a paper ballot if you can. Vote absentee if that's what it takes. Some areas (for example, New Jersey) are giving people the option of voting on paper ballots instead of machines. Take advantage of that. Even if your ballot is run through one of these questionable optical scanners, at least there's a paper record.

2. If you do have to vote on a voting machine, video tape it! If you have a phone with a video recorder, record the whole thing! That way, if something does go wrong, you'll have a record to prove it and you can do something about it.

3. Support groups like Black Box Voting who are dedicated to improving this situation. Unless the politicians get it through their thick skulls that these machines need to be abolished (and in my opinion, it should be a constitutional amendment) then these problems will always exist.

Oh, and Happy Birthday Geoff.

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