Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Concerned in New York -- the State

Like many of my peers in the state of New York, I voted in a primary yesterday (I know, it wasn't that big a group of my peers, but there were still surprisingly many of us). This was the first time we voted on the new optical-reader voting machines. These are the ones the state finally accepted after blocking the originally planned touch-screen machines which had no paper-trail whatsoever. So now we have a physical paper ballot that is scanned and tallied by a computer. No big deal, right? At least there is a paper-trail, right?

Here's the thing: I signed the registry book, then was handed a paper ballot with a couple of electoral races printed on it. I could either fill in a circle with one of the special markers available, or write in a name if I didn't like the pre-printed choices. All well and good so far. Bear in mind that these ballots are, of necessity, anonymous. Hence there is no way of verifying later how I myself voted should anyone want to. And why would anyone want to? Let me explain.

After I fed the marked up ballot into the machine, the reader checked to see if it could discern my choices, and since it could, it accepted the ballot and indicated on a small LCD screen that my votes were accepted. Thank you very much. Now, move along citizen, nothing more to see here. Well, what did I expect? The reader accepted my ballot, job done, what's your problem? Here it is:

I did not get a receipt nor any sign whatsoever that the reader recorded my votes the way I had cast them! Nor could anyone, from this point on, determine if my vote was counted properly except in the event of a manual recount! But suppose there was no official reason for a recount? If there was no result too close to call nor within the 1% difference that would trigger an automatic recount, there would be no need to verify the optical-reader's resulting counts. And unless this is done, at least on a suitable number of randomly chosen and purposely unexpected (to avoid a potential fraud perpetrator from simply avoiding mucking around with those particular) machines, there would be no way of knowing if someone had "hacked" any machines, thereby rigging an election.

Since exit polls are no longer considered "valid indicators" of election fraud*, how would we know that any election was not electronically rigged? Even computer experts cannot know, because the companies that make the electronic voting machines (most of which have Conservative CEO's and a few of which have already been shown to have little regard for the sanctity and need for accuracy of elections in a democratic nation) refuse to allow the experts to review their source code on the grounds that such code needs to be secret to protect said companies' intellectual property or, ironically, for the sake of security.

 Now, I'm not saying that I suspect fraud in any of the New York primaries this year. I think that the optical readers, with their paper ballot audit trail, are a much better solution to the electronic voting "problem" than any machine that has no paper trail at all. I still see a potential for election fraud in these systems, however, due to the lack of validation of the electronic votes themselves. Only in the event of a manual recount would we know for sure whether the electronic ballot totals were consistent with the physical ballot totals, and manual recounts are both rare and usually only performed if the election results were deemed too close for certainty.

So that's my issue with the optical scanning machines. They seem to be incorruptible, their paper ballots instilling a false sense of security, but they most definitely are not. States that use machines that have no paper-trail are even more susceptible to fraud.

 What could we do to make voting more secure and verifiable? We already have systems that are in use every day that are both secure and verifiable. They are called ATM's. For that matter, electronic gambling machines -- the so-called video slot machines -- are more secure and verified than any of the current electronic voting machines available. Even internet transactions can be more transparent and secure than the current generation of EVM's. Any of these technologies, properly designed and applied, would be a vast improvement of the current crop of EVM's as we know them.

I personally think that  voting in America should be convenient, secure, accurate, and verified. Hell! I think it should be required by law of all citizens as it is in some countries that put a higher value on the democratic process than on, well, money or even sports.  Instead, ever since Election Day was allowed to be a "floating" holiday, convenience of voting has decreased. I think that we should be able to vote from our cell phones or from our computers or even home phones using secure transaction technology that we already know and trust when using online banking. Such systems are extremely difficult to hack, and, should they be so hacked, are quick to be corrected due to the application of  stringent auditing techniques.

We as a nation need to be vigilant and demanding of our most precious rights and freedoms, especially concerning the requirements of a functioning democracy. Electronic voting machines, as they are currently designed and implemented, are a threat to the foundations of the democratic process. We must demand transparency and verifiability in our voting methods, or we will be open to corruption of the electoral process upon which we depend.


*See federal vs. state elections in Ohio in 2004, where exit polls agreed with "actual" results on all local elections but wildly disagreed with most of the federal results. Some polling districts reported thousands more total votes than there were registered voters.  Also see federal elections in Florida in 2000 Remember how some media outlets originally called that election for Gore? That's because the exit polls in Florida showed Gore winning by a significant margin at that point in time. We can only wonder what the state's results might have been if the major broadcasters hadn't made such an announcement before the western part of the state, which was in a different time zone, had closed their polls. There would not have been time for the Republicans to pull out all the stops in the panhandle and swing an (artificially close?) election for their candidate. Even so, it's another question of what might have been if Gore had simply invoked his Constitutional right to request an official recount of the entire state of Florida rather than his at first tentative request for recounts of only certain districts where it was thought that he would most likely gain votes in a recount.
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