Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Four More Years to Finally Get It Right
In the new devices, a voter has no way of proving that his or her choice is reported in the final tally

By Steven Levy

Dec. 6 issue - Almost a month after the presidential election, I'm still getting missives from people who insist that things don't smell right. They draw on a litany of irregularities that are well-circulated in the blogosphere, the Blue States and maybe even subterranean corners of the Red nation. Some are of the dead-canary-in-the-coal-mine variety, like the computer in Ohio that delivered Bush 4,258 votes when only 638 humans actually cast ballots. Others are more sweeping, like the charges that e-voting peculiarities could have somehow lost Kerry 260,000 votes in Florida. Not all of these people charge fraud, but clearly many believe the worst. And if they go to the popular blackboxvoting.org site, a headline assures them IT'S OK TO SAY THE F-WORD.

It would be easy to dismiss this bunch as a society of paranoids. Indeed, their complaints seem beyond the pale when key e-voting critics claim that despite some problems, there's no evidence that the outcome was affected. Anyway, at this point, even pictures of Karl Rove personally hacking Diebold machines wouldn't budge the incumbent from the White House. Is it time for these folks to shut up already?

To the contrary, their curmudgeonry serves an important purpose. The nature of the ATM-style voting terminals used by a third of the country in 2004—and set to increase over the next few cycles—doesn't merely invite controversy. It makes doubt a permanent part of the process. The problem is that the new devices have no way of proving to the voter that his or her choice is reported in the final tally. Researchers have demonstrated that the machines themselves are not foolproof—and, worse, are potentially susceptible to vote-stealing schemes.

You would think that some means of verifiability (like a paper printout that can be saved and used in a recount) would be a minimal requirement. Yet legislation that would have mandated such protections in 2004 was bottled up in Congress.

As a result, even though the e-voting machines seem to have performed decently this time around, we're still stuck with doubt. How do we know that they haven't massively misreported the totals? "It's like saying that there are no stealth bombers overhead because none can be seen on the radar," says Avi Rubin, the Johns Hopkins professor who has identified severe weaknesses in e-voting technology. He doesn't dispute the 2004 outcome, but worries about next time. "I'm afraid there could be undetectable fraud."

So what are the chances of fixing this by 2008? Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey intends to reintroduce his voter-verification bill in the next session. He will have new ammunition: this year Nevada's e-voting terminals successfully used paper backups, refuting critics who claimed that the extra technology would gum up the works. "The issue is not who won or lost this year," says Holt. "The issue is voter confidence."

Of course, verification is only one component of voting reform. Why is it that the companies that make the machines are run by executives who favor one party over another? For that matter, why is it that the so-called referees of the process are often partisan politicians themselves? When tackling the problems of provisional ballots, supplying precincts with sufficient voting machines and handling recounts, wouldn't it make sense to have neutral parties in charge?

After the 2000 debacle, one might have expected that our leaders would move mountains to make the next election an exemplary one. The fact that we cannot convince the doubters proves otherwise. Don't call them paranoid, but recognize their passion for fairly run, accurately tabulated elections. If only their zeal were more contagious.

Comment: Although the above is an otherwise excellent article, the author and those he chooses to quote claim that they don't believe there was fraud in this election, but if we don't fix the process there 'might' be some in the next one, while at the same time saying that the problems this time actually point strongly to probable fraud (although not saying so in so many words). This double-speak on the part of the media is part of the problem, and why many US citizens are still not paying attention to the facts that show widespread problems including strong appearances of fraud and corruption.