Saturday, August 23, 2008

Update - Our voting systems still urgently need fixing

To repeat some points I made back in December 2006 (Is there really hope that we might start to fix our voting system?) that I think should be fairly uncontroversial:
Among the many urgent problems facing us in the US, let us not lose sight of the fact that our voting system is a dangerous mess--somewhere between Rube Goldberg and banana republic (I don't mean the clothing store).

The 2000 election made it unavoidably clear that there was a drastic problem, and since then the response, incredibly enough, has been to make matters even worse. [....]
So far, despite some spotty improvements, the overall news is not wildly encouraging. In case it's still not clear to some people why we should be urgently worried about our voting systems, including their scandalous susceptibility to computer malfunctions and hacking, here is a useful update from the Washington Post, via Instapundit:
WELL, THIS IS ENCOURAGING: "A voting system used in 34 states contains a critical programming error that can cause votes to be dropped while being electronically transferred from memory cards to a central tallying point, the manufacturer acknowledges." There's an obvious solution, of course.
=> CLARIFICATION (8/25/2008): A helpful e-mail message from Mark Kleiman alerted me to the fact that the post I quoted from Instapundit (aka Glenn Reynolds, for non-blogospheric types) may convey a somewhat misleading impression if left by itself. What Glenn Reynolds proposes as the obvious solution is to return to a system in which voters simply mark paper ballots. The notion does have some obvious appeal, and verifiable paper records are undoubtedly a key part of the answer, but a pure paper ballot system is not the only possible solution, and it can pose some problems of its own.

On the whole, I agree with Mark's conclusion: "The right approach is to have touch-screen machines that print machine-readable, voter-checkable paper ballots. Rush Holt is on the case."

That's Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, whose bill, first introduced back in 2003, should be passed immediately. Here's what Holt said about it in 2004:
The principal thing my bill would do is to require a voter-verified parallel paper record for votes. The bill is called the Voter Confidence Act [The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003 (H.R. 2239)] [....]

Many jurisdictions are buying electronic voting machines in states and counties. They offer real advantages such as accessibility, particularly for people with physical handicaps, convenience of use, and that sort of thing. People who are visually impaired can have audio guidance through the voting process with these electronic machines. And, for the first time in history, they can vote unaided. And there are other advantages to the electronic machines.

Nevertheless, they have one major disadvantage, which is if there is an error somewhere between the casting of the vote and the recording of the vote, no one will ever know. So if the software is flawed, the computer doesn't do what the voter intends, and no one will ever know. That's why it's really important that there be an opportunity for each voter to verify her or his own vote.

My bill would require a paper record that the voter gets to see. And the voter can say, "Yup, that's my vote." And then when the vote is submitted electronically, that paper record is also stored at the polling place. And that is the vote of record, so that if there is a recount, it will be with that paper record that the voter has personally verified. [....]

[A]s it is now, a recount is meaningless with the electronic machines. I mean, the electronic machine will, for all eternity, say exactly what it did five minutes after the polls closed, and if there were a software error, no one would be the wiser. My bill calls for this paper record.

I avoid the use of the word "receipt" because this is not something that the voter gets to take and keep. For one thing, that would open the door to fraud and vote sale, and various problems. So this is a record that is available for audit. My bill further requires that in one-half of one percent of the machines, there will be a random spot check audit. [....]
As far as I can tell, Holt's bill could cover either a pure paper-ballot system (for die-hard simplificationists) or a paper-verified computerized system. If anyone can find the slightest problem with all that (I can't), please let the rest of us know.

=> Meanwhile ... it's now a little over two months until the national election. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

--Jeff Weintraub

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