Officials Wary of Electronic Voting Machines

I’m glad to see articles like this and happy that the officials are wary – but I’m also disappointed. They are not dealing with the essential problem with electronic voting machines. Instead, they are focusing on issues which really ought to be on the periphery of the discussion.

The real issue with these machines, if they do not have verifiable paper trails which are generated and checked, is that their accuracy depends on trust. And trust in politics is a might scarce quantity.

These voting machines are basically computers with a dedicated function which is, on the surface, to record, count and report votes. But, computers are very complex entities and it is possible to add a huge amount of extra fuctionality into one of these machines without apparently altering its basic functionality.

Just imagine a small sub-program, hidden deep in the main counting code, which says, ‘for each vote for a democrat received, generate a random number between 1 and 100 and if that number falls between 1 and 5, then change the vote to be for the republican.‘ This would swing 5% of the votes from the democrats to the republicans and it would be very hard to detect since the 5% of votes changed would seem to be randomly scattered. This is just a very simple example. The manipulations could be more subtle such as not changing any votes unless the race was looking very close.

Without a paper trail, and with all of us just ‘trusting’ the folks who develop the machines, how would we ever know?

Well, there are answers to this conundrum but you won’t find them in articles like this one. I was a professional computer programmer for 25 years and worked deep in the operating system interiors of many different kinds of systems and I can tell you that it is not difficult for people with the knowledge to do what I’m suggesting and it is extremly hard for anyone but another professional to find the manipulations.

The computer programming code in these machines is ‘proprietary’ which means that it is owned by the company that makes the voting machine and it is typically not available for inspection by people outside of the company. Does this sound smart to you? It gives me the willies.

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 — A growing number of state and local officials are getting cold feet about electronic voting technology, and many are making last-minute efforts to limit or reverse the rollout of new machines in the November elections.

Less than two months before voters head to the polls, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland this week became the most recent official to raise concerns publicly. Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said he lacked confidence in the state’s new $106 million electronic voting system and suggested a return to paper ballots.

Dozens of states have adopted electronic voting technology to comply with federal legislation in 2002 intended to phase out old-fashioned lever and punch-card machines after the “hanging chads” confusion of the 2000 presidential election.

But some election officials and voting experts say they fear that the new technology may have only swapped old problems for newer, more complicated ones. Their concerns became more urgent after widespread problems with the new technology were reported this year in primaries in Ohio, Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland and elsewhere.

This year, about one-third of all precincts nationwide are using the electronic voting technology for the first time, raising the chance of problems at the polls as workers struggle to adjust to the new system.

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