The Hanging Bit

by Christopher Paul on October 1, 2006

This year, millions of voters will become disenfranchised from the voting process. I believe that it will be worse than the 2000 and 2004 elections when Florida had its own debacle and Ohio was just downright corrupt. The confusion, fraud, and general frustration will be felt by so many more this year as electronic voting is used for the first time on such a large scale.

Its only a matter of time until everyone is voting electronically.  Its a natural progression of our industrialist nation to go from manual counting to a more automated process with computers assisting now more than ever. Not only are results supposed to be more accurate (no hanging chads the debates that come with that insanity) and not prone to the corruption that plagued the Ohio voting system in 2004. In fact, if done well, results could filter in immediately drastically altering the political landscape. Imagine a world where someone could vote at 9am and by 11am know how their candidate is doing. And how cool would that be if at noon, the underdog could rally the populace and possibly sway the election in his or her favor! But computers are designed and coded by people who make mistakes. Therefore, no voting system programmed by people is perfect – especially on the first try.

If they are anything like most computers out there, the possibility of a system crashing is real. Diagnosing the problem could take a highly skilled technician hours if it can be fixed on the spot at all. Problems could come from defective hardware, software, data lines, power outlets, improper installation, unexpected actions from the users, and so much more. All you need is a single Blue Screen of Death to disenfranchise a voter. Add up all the BSODs and you’ve got yourself massive chaos, anger, and resentment that will last forever – well after election day.

Lets not also forget that the new technology will confuse many people who have never seen or used a computer before. Think about all the elderly citizens who have always flipped a lever, punched a card, or even wrote down their vote who now have to touch a screen to vote. Hell, even people who use computers often enough still could find themselves confused at the unfamiliar. I am extremely computer savvy and I pick up logic very easily but if I am not prepared for a new system, I am handicapped at how fast I can select the man or woman to represent me. Furthermore, I might not be confident I did it correctly and may question whether or not my vote was registered. I would hope that there is visual output to help the user in that but who knows if everyone will pick up on that.

But worst of all is the possibility of downright fraud from hackers. Many studies, tests, and other analysis have a large number of people doubting the integrity of the systems. In labs, some of these systems have been proven hackable in seconds! Think about how massive the fraud could be!! I can see the calamity now… A state who almost always votes red suddenly finds 100% of their population voting blue. The effects would be disastrous – entire elections could be ruled corrupt and invalidated! If I were politicians, I’d be very worried about young activist hackers out there changing the results – its not hard to find someone with the skills and will to do just that.

I’ll admit that my fears are based on the unknown. I haven’t seen these systems yet and when I do, I’ll be nervous to use them. And I can’t let my fears unnecessarily delay the inevitable. But I do feel that these systems are not what we need today and I would ask that their use be delayed until they are thoroughly tested – no crashes and no chance of fraud. I know I doubt the integrity of these systems because the community hasn’t seen the source code. They haven’t seen demonstrations. And they haven’t been given assurances that it will work better than previous, manual, systems.

I bet the code will never be willingly released. Companies have money on the line and don’t want their intellectual property open for others to copy – and I can understand that. But they risk ruining their chances for more business if their systems fail or get hacked. It would be a good PR move to somehow get people looking at their code and testing it on a massive scale to reduce software bugs, improve usability, and completely prevent hacking.

Until that happens, however, I cannot say I welcome this new technology. When the software is perfected, I look forward to voting and bettering a system that isn’t perfect. But I wouldn’t want to replace an ok solution with a worse one.

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