Better the Devil We Know

Oct 272003
Authors: Shannon Baldwin

The downside of electronic voting machines

As next year’s presidential election approaches, the memory of

Florida’s 2000 debacle with the infamous hanging chad lingers. With

the Supreme Court ruling that counting votes without standard is

far worse than not counting the votes at all, it is understandable

that new ways of updating the system are being adopted all over the


Cue the advent of the electronic voting system.

On the surface, stepping the backbone of a democratic society up

to 21st Century standards seems a given. Touch-screen machines

promise accurate elections free of hanging chads that, as was

demonstrated in 2000, can prove fatal to an individual’s vote and

to the integrity of the entire election.

But upgrading the process to fit the newest technology is not

necessarily the best answer to the punch-card problem. In fact, it

seems that electronic voting machines bring more serious problems

than hanging chads ever could.

A research team at Johns Hopkins University published an

analysis of the electronic voting system, concluding that the risks

presented could threaten the entire democratic process. They found

weaknesses in the cryptography and software that would easily allow

a hacker – or an inside threat – to sabotage the votes without

being detected.

Barry Rascovar, a strategic communications consultant,

criticized the study.

“We often forget that there is no foolproof method for holding

elections,” Rascover said. “Any method used could fall victim to

hanky-panky. It’s tough to pull off a scam, though, in an open

balloting environment. You might be able to hoodwink the computer,

but it’s far tougher to fool the thousands of Election Day humans

looking for mischief at the polls.”

What Rascover seems to overlook is the fact that the study

points out that possible interference would come from behind the

scenes, right underneath the election official’s noses. But

Rascover also felt it was not a fair analysis because the study was

done in a closed laboratory setting and not a “real-time’ election.

It seems Rascover would rather disregard the warning and take the

chances that an election would deteriorate into a fiasco worse than

the hanging chads in Florida.

At least in theory, hanging chads are re-countable. With the

electronic voting system, there is no paper trail to double check

the accuracy of the count. And the votes would not be counted by

state election officials, but rather the private voting machine


Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the top three

voting machine companies in the US – ES&S, Sequoia and Diebold

– all contribute heavily to a certain political party (take a wild

guess as to which one). Talk about a conflict of interest. It’s

eerie how partisan the computer glitches have proved so far. In

mid-term elections in 2002, voters in Texas who tried to vote for

the Democratic candidate where brought to a screen that only had

the Republican option.

And Florida thought punch ballots were confusing.

Robert Lawrence, professor of political science at CSU, said

that the technology upgrades would be okay if the integrity could

be guaranteed by a paper trial of some sort and also would “not

intimidate older citizens, and others who are not comfortable with


It is a valid point. Is the alienation of the technologically

timid a fair and valid side effect of upgrading the process, or is

it more like discrimination?

And there are groups – including the ACLU – who are against

attempting to add a paper trial to these machines, arguing that

adding printers to touch-screen voting systems will be costly and

will make it harder for blind people and other disabled voters to

use the machines correctly. They also sighted test runs of

printing-enabled machines in which the printers repeatedly


So then why do they still advocate the technology at all? Why go

to the huge expense of upgrading when the voting machines are not

as competent as the paper ballots? Is a gain in “accuracy” worth

the loss in the integrity of the voting process – which is

fundamental to the integrity of democracy itself?

Give me the hanging chads.

Shannon is a senior majoring in technical journalism. Her column

runs every Tuesday.





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