Thursday, November 09, 2006

I am the modren man

Voting in Maryland was terrific in the '80s and '90s. You got a paper ballot and put it in a hole punch. You lined the big red arrow up with your chosen candidate's name, pressed the gleaming steel handle, and exercised your franchise with a satisfying basso Ka-CHUNK. Repeat for each race. I can't ever recall hearing someone complaining about a hanging chad or unclear technology, and we always got our results in a timely fashion.

So pardon me if I don't much truck with these new-fangled voting computers.
As a certain college president I know is fond of saying, it smacks of "have I got a tool for you!" Sure, they're brighter and shinier and better for Diebold shareholders. But is a digital solution really the best one?

A technophile librarian can get some grief for saying that computerized is not always best. But I respect paper as a magnificent technology. It's ubiquitous, it's universal, it's straightforward yet flexible, and it's been around long enough that we shouldn't be surprised by it very often. Why should we turn away from that just because it doesn't have a power cord? (One of these days I have to get around to reading some Henry Petroski.)

In 2000, the Florida election was a mess because of a badly designed paper ballot, but it's not right to blame paper itself for that. And in 2004, the Gambier elections were a mess because of old computers, but again, new computers aren't necessarily the only answer.

(To be fair, there are two obvious benefits to voting on computer. It's a lot easier to correct a mistake on a digital ballot than a paper one. You don't have to look at a person and admit you messed up. Theoretically, electronic voting could also be a lot more accessible to the handicapped or illiterate. Zooming screens and audio output are a given in personal computers; they ought to be available for voting machines.)

The computer security issues get a lot of press, but it's not an argument that holds up to scrutiny. Hacking the software assumes a high level of access to the machines. So in fact, the first issue is physical security, just as it is for paper ballots. If election workers are so poorly trained that they let cabbies picked at random deliver voting machines, well, securing the software is about one hundred forty-fifth on the list of things to worry about.

For that matter, why would a political party take the time, energy, and risk to devise an undercover vote hacking assault when you can disenfranchise an entire polling place with a shotgun and a map of the electrical grid? Some buckshot in a transformer ought to snarl things up real good, and be a much easier secret to keep than a multi-person hacking conspiracy. Paper ballots can be cast by candlelight if need be, and the average poll worker knows why they have to be physically protected.

Paper has soul. It's a connection to our history. Touchscreens just ain't got no Elvis in 'em. Maybe it's just an old fogey Luddite view, but holes in paper were good enough for Alan Turing to beat the Nazis, and I bet they're good enough for me to choose between these bozos.


Anonymous michael said...

<crochety-old-joe>And while yer at it, get off my lawn, ya snot-nosed kids!</crochety-old-joe>

Actually, I have the same reservations as you (and Bruce Schneier, and lots of other folks). The Secretary of State of Maryland mentions the "tamper-proof tape" on the machines as a fraud-prevention method. Great! Wait until the end of the day, walk up to a machine, and surreptitiously slit the tape! You've just invalidated the votes of everyone who used that machine!

Any self-contained, high-tech device has at least one low-tech vulnerability. The solution is not to seek a totally secure system; it's to design a system whose insecurities can be managed and controlled for to the highest extent possible. This is true of paper punch ballots, optical-scan ballots, lever/switch voting booths, and, yes, touch-screen voting machines. All are susceptible to fraud. The difference is that most of them are susceptible to retail fraud (limited in scope to a single vote, machine, or polling place), while electronic voting machines are susceptible to wholesale fraud.

3:10 PM, November 09, 2006  
Blogger GrigorPDX said...

Hey hey, let's hear it for vote by mail! Once again, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to live in a state where all elections are vote by mail.

There is a strong argument for good old old-fashioned paper ballots. If for no other reason than the votes are recorded on a tangible, permanent medium that can be audited and re-counted later. With electronic storage, there is *always* the risk of the data being untraceably altered or erased.

The computer security issues get a lot of press, but it's not an argument that holds up to scrutiny.

I disagree. It's been proven that electronic voting machines can be subverted without leaving a trace.

7:00 PM, November 09, 2006  
Blogger Joe said...

A friend of mine was an officer in the Navy. He was pretty surprised when he only got about 45 minutes of sidearm training. When he asked about this, he got a response that "if a battle ever comes down to your accuracy with a .45, we've already lost."

I didn't mean to suggest that the programming vulnerabilities aren't serious. I did mean that they're getting a disproportionate amount of attention.

If training poll workers on using voting machines is taking time away from training them on securing access to the machines, then a successful hack is a matter of time, no matter how secure the software is.

But absolutely, the voting process in any medium at all needs layered, flexible security. It should be hard to get access to ballots, and then it should be hard to tamper with them.

PS: how hard would it be to program a computer to print one thing to a tape and write something different to a database? Not very, I think...

8:28 AM, November 10, 2006  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

Enjoyed this post, Joe. But I feel just the opposite: paper ballots frighten me. Actually, that's not true. Paper ballots don't frighten me. Antiquated mechanisms that act upon the paper ballots frighten me. I don't see that much difference between a computer that can be hacked and a butterfly ballot mechanism that can be so easily operated incorrectly. Both systems have multiple points of failure.

I have voted electronically for the majority of my electoral life. So the notion of dropping electronic voting systems like hot rocks is not appealing to me at all. I've never felt that my vote was compromised because I didn't use a paper ballot. The only time I ever used paper was when I filled out an absentee ballot and mailed it in.

(You would be correct in observing that I have lived most of my life in very affluent areas of the country so that the electronic mechanisms are always top notch and almost never have any problems. But class and electoral access is another post for another day...)

That's why Oregon's system appeals to me: it's a simple system that most people will understand and adopt pretty quickly.

5:34 PM, November 10, 2006  

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