Sure, you pressed the button... but did it count?

Sure, you pressed the button... but did it count?

Those who cast the votes, they decide nothing. Those who count the votes, they decide everything.

So said a “friend” of the proletariat, Joseph Stalin, pointing out one way to bypass majoritarian power at the ballot box. In the twenty-first century, the who counting the ballots has increasingly become a computer instead of a group of people, but the results may subvert democracy in much the same way that Stalin envisioned.

Following in the tradition of audits against Diebold Systems, a recent audit has found gaping holes in the security and reliability of the Sequoia Voting Systems electronic voting machines used in New Jersey. What was once merely an academic exercise for researchers has become an issue of public interest as a series of e-voting failures has finally made some politicians realize that advanced technology does not always produce increased accuracy. Even eight years removed from the 2000 recount debacle, e-voting systems are still so unreliable that Florida voted to return to paper ballots (albeit ones that do not involve chads).

As is often the case, the current crisis in voting is directly traceable to the Congressional solution of the last big electoral crisis, the aforementioned 2000 presidential election in Florida. In response to public discontent with “hanging chads” and seemingly “primitive” paper ballots, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which poured taxpayer money into efforts to procure the most complicated electronic voting machines possible. What followed was a rush to purchase e-voting machines, which resulted in too many dollars chasing poorly designed systems such as Diebold’s and Sequoia’s.

This year, Congress passed the Bipartisan Electronic Voting Reform Act of 2008, amending the 2002 Act to at least suggest that verification of electronic totals via paper receipts is a “best practice.” Congress cannot take all the blame for the situation, since our federal system grants states the responsibility of purchasing voting machines and running elections. Other states that initially adopted e-voting may backtrack, just as Florida did, if the e-voting vendors continue to expect tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to produce machines that obfuscate the election process instead of facilitating it.

Electronic voting is not necessarily any more or less dangerous than other forms of voting. Voter fraud and fixed elections predate computers by a huge margin, and will continue to be an unfortunate reality in the future. However, this does not mean that voting machine vendors should be able to defraud taxpayers with shoddy workmanship. As a computer engineer, I know that tabulating votes is an extremely simple task which, quite frankly, is vastly simpler than the computations done by an ordinary cash register. However, cash registers are actually designed to prevent tampering and also emit a “paper trail”– simple paper receipts that record billions of business transactions each day. There is absolutely no excuse for the fact that the machines recording votes for the next president are so poorly designed that they could return grossly inaccurate results through either malice or abject incompetence. Additionally, it is almost inconceivable that companies claiming to be experts in designing e-voting machines cannot (or will not) design a machine that will print a verifiable receipt for each vote that may be kept to audit the machines and to assist in case of recounts. To avoid Stalin’s pronouncement, the states must take control of their own elections and either demand fully accountable electronic machines or cast their own votes against e-voting entirely.

– Chuck Fox

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