voting machines: a primer

I’m posting some background information on the whole issue of electronic voting machines. While this issue has gotten some space in the press, it seems paltry compared to how big an issue this could turn out to be. They’re devoting the usual amount to the presidential campaign. But how can the campaign itself matter, if we can’t find out who really won the election? Or worse, that the election results were tampered with, and we would have no way of knowing?

Now, my out look is generally technophilic, but the blind assumption that a high-tech solution is always an improvement over a low-tech solution is wrong as often as any other kind of blind assumption. This voting machine fiasco seems to me to be a real potential problem for our fair Republic, and since it’s not getting reported as much as I think it should, I’m putting this little primer together, so that at least my family and friends will get up to speed and hopefully help raise some hell about the issue.

So what’s the problem? This TechTV/ABC News story gives a great overview. The machines aren’t secure, they can’t be audited (which is actually a bigger issue than the insecurity, since really, no system, not even paper, is free from the possibility of tampering), and while not necessarily damning, but certainly unsettling, the CEO of Diebold (a major voting machine manufacturer), said in a fund-raising letter to Ohio Republicans that he is “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” (More on that story here; originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer).

This Robert X. Cringely column examines the problem from an Information Technology angle. That shouldn’t put you off if you’re not in the IT world, because he’s also a good writer, and an IT skeptic, as evidenced here:

Voting is nothing more than gathering and validating data on a huge scale, which these days is almost entirely the province of IT. And like many other really big IT projects, this touch screen voting thing came about as a knee-jerk reaction to some earlier problem, in this case the 2000 Florida election with its hanging chads and controversial outcome. Punch card voting was too unreliable, it was decided, so we needed something more complex and expensive because the response to any IT problem is to spend more money making things more complex.

Cringely’s next column (“Follow the Money: Why the Best Voting Technology May Be No Technology At All“) aims at some solutions.

This opinion piece in the Miami Herald gives some insight into the technical problems with Diebold voting machines, from Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins Professor. Rubin also co-authored this paper which is more technical (but really seems to be the first thing to raise the issue), and wrote up this anecdote of being a judge at a Maryland voting station.

I’ll post more on this as events warrant.


So, there’s been a large gap in updates. Things have been eventful in the real world. I can’t recall any one month period in my life where so many bad things have happened to so many people, some close, some just acquaintences. And to top it off, I haven’t had much chance to process it all because it was probably the worst month at work that I’ve ever gone through. Anyway, none of it is stuff that is really happening to me, so it’s not really mine to blog. Except for the work stuff, which I’m so sick of that I have no interest in wallowing in here.

I’m just very relieved that it’s March already.