Can You Count on Voting Machines?

“One might expect computer scientists to be fans of computer-based vote-counting devices, but it turns out that the more you know about computers, the more likely you are to be terrified that they’re running elections.”

A excellent and in-depth article from the NY Times about electronic voting machines. I certainly agree with the quote from the article, above. After spending an entire career deep inside computers, I can tell you that the potential for abuse is huge and the public’s trust for the technology is entirely misplaced. If someone knows computers and wants to make them do nefarious things, there is very little anyone can do to stop them.

When you combine the fact that the inner workings of computers are a great mystery to most folks and the fact that huge stakes are in play for those who win elections, you have a beautiful combination of motivation and opportunity here.

I’ve been focused on the issue of whether or not electronic voting machines are a good idea for some time now. And my vote has been a resounding ‘No!‘ from the beginning.

The problem isn’t computers per se, however. It is, rather, how computers are being used for voting in the U.S. that I object to.

Companies are producing electronic voting machines which contain proprietary (that means privately owned intellectual property that you and I have no right to see and inspect) hardware and software and then asking us to ‘trust’ that their products will work fairly and impartially. No way should anyone trust such an approach. And, I believe, the only reason we do is because people are so deeply unknowledgeable and naive about computers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Australians have taken a much better approach. One that ensures that the machines do what they are designed to do and that every bit of their internal workings are an open book for anyone who wants to verify their correctness.

You have to ask yourself why an approach like this isn’t being supported here in the U.S? I have – and I don’t think the answer is pretty.

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Jane Platten gestured, bleary-eyed, into the secure room filled with voting machines. It was 3 a.m. on Nov. 7, and she had been working for 22 hours straight. “I guess we’ve seen how technology can affect an election,” she said. The electronic voting machines in Cleveland were causing trouble again.

For a while, it had looked as if things would go smoothly for the Board of Elections office in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. About 200,000 voters had trooped out on the first Tuesday in November for the lightly attended local elections, tapping their choices onto the county’s 5,729 touch-screen voting machines. The elections staff had collected electronic copies of the votes on memory cards and taken them to the main office, where dozens of workers inside a secure, glass-encased room fed them into the “GEMS server,” a gleaming silver Dell desktop computer that tallies the votes.

Then at 10 p.m., the server suddenly froze up and stopped counting votes. Cuyahoga County technicians clustered around the computer, debating what to do. A young, business-suited employee from Diebold — the company that makes the voting machines used in Cuyahoga — peered into the screen and pecked at the keyboard. No one could figure out what was wrong. So, like anyone faced with a misbehaving computer, they simply turned it off and on again. Voilà: It started working — until an hour later, when it crashed a second time. Again, they rebooted. By the wee hours, the server mystery still hadn’t been solved.

Worse was yet to come. When the votes were finally tallied the next day, 10 races were so close that they needed to be recounted. But when Platten went to retrieve paper copies of each vote — generated by the Diebold machines as they worked — she discovered that so many printers had jammed that 20 percent of the machines involved in the recounted races lacked paper copies of some of the votes. They weren’t lost, technically speaking; Platten could hit “print” and a machine would generate a replacement copy. But she had no way of proving that these replacements were, indeed, what the voters had voted. She could only hope the machines had worked correctly.


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– Thx to John P for research

– This article is from the NY Times and they insist that folks have an ID and a PW in order to read their stuff. You can get these for free just by signing up. However, recently, a friend of mine suggested the website :arrow: as an alternative to having to do these annoying sign ups. Check it out. Thx Bruce S. for the tip.

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