Saturday, March 1, 2008

Primary Voting

I voted in the Texas primaries yesterday evening, using the early voting location in the lobby of the Flawn Academic Center (or whatever we're calling that building these days), on the U.T. Austin campus. I arrived at 6 PM, but didn't get to vote until 6:30 PM, due to a line of people about 150 feet long. I've seen voting lines there before, but this was the first time I've encountered one that long. Impressive turnout.

It's just a shame that none of us voters has any way of knowing that our votes will be recorded, reported and tallied correctly, because, as has been the case for a number of years, we had no choice but to use an electronic voting system. The foundation of our democratic republic has been entrusted to devices (computers) whose defining purpose is the manipulation of data. My mind still boggles at this.

Just in case anyone wants the opinion of someone who has been programming computers for about 30 years, this is idiocy. There is no way to make pure electronic voting (which is what we use here) secure, or even accountable. And as a member of the open source software development community, let me add that electronic voting based on open source software won't help, no matter how popular that idea may be in some quarters. You can review the source code 'till the cows come home, and there still won't be any way for a voter, or an election official, to know that the code running in any given piece of e-voting equipment was produced from the meticulously reviewed and validated source code. And even if that problem magically went away, there'd be no way of knowing that there was no other code (from software to firmware to logic wired into the hardware) involved in the process of recording, reporting and tallying the votes. So, pure electronic voting should never have happened, and open-sourcing and/or reviewing the underlying code, though a good idea, cannot make it trustworthy.

It must be said that the problems cited above are not limited to the pure electronic voting systems currently in use. The system of electronically counted paper ballots that it replaced had most of the same problems - just pushed back one layer. But that one layer - the recording of the votes - was important. It made hand recounts, and other forms of validation, possible. By its very nature, pure electronic voting—to state the obvious—makes recounts, and all other forms of validation, either impossible or meaningless. That any portion of the democratic functions of our nation has come to "rely" on such systems is indicative of profound negligence, or worse. Both, I suspect.

Was vote tampering impossible in the absence of pure electronic voting systems? Certainly not. Vote tampering is a potential problem in any voting system. We all know that from the many cases of tampering that have been documented over the years. But that's actually the good news: Vote tampering could be, and was, caught before the advent of pure electronic voting systems. With the arrival of such systems, we can do little more than infer the act of tampering (and recounts have been rendered impossible). The advocates of these systems would have us believe that the resultant ignorance of tampering is equivalent to the absence of tampering. And that is indicative of profound ignorance, or worse. Both, I suspect.

1 comment:

  1. Alison in Austria6:28 AM CST

    Excellent comments, Chris and I wish they could be read by a larger community than that provided by your blog.
    I have, as a person with two residences, been voting absentee for many years - I get a paper ballot. I can, of course, only hope it is actually opened and counted at the appropriate time. But it is a piece of paper with an X by the name of the candidate of my choice - not a collection of bits and bytes, no hanging chads and no butterfly ballots in Ind. either.
    By working at the polls in election years (where the most finicky electronic voting machines are being universally instituted to the dismay of poll workers), I also provide myself with a reason to vote absentee in elections where I am not abroad. After reading your essay, I will continue to use every means necessary to get the fairest possible voting chance.
    It may interest you to know that in Austria, a highly industrialized country, paper ballots are still in use and in this country of 8+ million people, results are counted and reported before midnight, thanks to the numerous volunteers from all parties (2-5 depending on the district) supporting the system.