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Does Your Vote Count?

DREvoting.jpgWhen American voters go to the polls next Tuesday, nearly 40% will encounter a so-called Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machine, usually referred to as a touch-screen voting machine, and another 40% will encounter optical scan voting machines. The security risks involved in the current model of electronic voting are so abundant and so varied that it's almost too big of a problem to consider, but Jon "Hannibal" Stokes at Ars Technica has produced a wonderful non-techie explanation of the nature of the problem (a PDF version, appropriate for printing out and giving to everyone you know, can be found here). Reading Stokes' document won't make you feel better about the situation -- if anything, it will make you even more worried about the fate of American democracy -- but understanding the problem is the first step to solving it.

If you're at all concerned about the state of the democratic vote in the US, you need to read this document.

For me, this all boils down to a crisis of transparency. The disaster that we will face in a few days isn't that the machines will be hacked, it's that we won't know whether they have, and we will have no real way of checking. Without an independent trail of vote verification (such as voter-checked paper records) actually examined by the board of elections, there's simply no way of knowing if malicious code has been inserted in an electronic voting system to alter the outcome. No way of knowing. And that's worse, in some ways, than proof of election tampering, in that all electronic votes become suspect. Up to 80% of the votes cast on Tuesday could be considered inherently illegitimate.

Even if nobody hacks the election this time around (and again, we have no way of knowing), there are few computer vulnerabilities that have never been attacked -- and, as the Stokes article demonstrates, electronic voting computers have many vulnerabilities.

Moreover, the threat isn't limited to a wily hacker fiddling with the electronics to subtly alter vote totals; Stokes points out, quite accurately, that deliberate vandalism of an electronic voting system is virtually indistinguishable from a machine malfunction. and since the result of a broken or vandalized machine is that all votes it has tallied are discarded, a close election can be thrown simply by targeted physical attacks (which can be as simple as cutting a security tape) in districts known to have been gerrymandered to emphasize one party or another.

The underlying issue is that most of the steps in the process of programming, distributing, and gathering vote machines and information is hidden away from the public, under the guise of "trade secrets." Diebold, ES&S, and the various other DRE manufacturers can claim with a straight face that nobody should be allowed to examine their code because it's proprietary -- never mind that what the software controls is literally the most fundamental act of a citizen. This is so breathtakingly wrong-headed that it's staggering; if we're to use electronic voting, there should be broad public scrutiny at every step of the process, and once loaded, it should be impossible to change the code or touch the recorded votes in the field. It goes without saying that there should also be voter-verified paper trails, subject to random spot checks.

Unfortunately, because the major DRE manufacturers have both strong Republican connections and poor verbal control (e.g., Diebold executives promising to "deliver Ohio to the Republican Party"), fears about the legitimacy and security of electronic voting systems has taken on a partisan bent, making it harder to move forward with strong reforms. Never mind that many Democratic officials have been captured by the DRE manufacturing lobby, too. People expressing concerns over DREs get slapped with a "Left-wing conspiracy theorist" label, and ignored.

Here's my scenario for Tuesday's election, then:

Nearly all polls show the Democratic Party having a dominating lead versus the Republican Party in most national and state-wide races. Some of the votes are going to be close, however. I think that the outcomes will nominally match the polls, but that the Republican Party will be at the forefront of loud complaints about electronic election fraud. They'll immediately be seen as legitimate complaints, in part due to voting machines normally being a "Democratic" issue, and in part due to overly-subservient national media. Whether that will lead to calls for re-votes, selections by governors, or more trips to the (Republican-partisan) US Supreme Court remains to be seen. But come Wednesday, November 8, the shrill cries of computerized vote tampering will come, in abundance, from the Right.


Another scenario could be: There is an incredible and unexplainable last-minute change of mind among the American voters, and surprisingly the Republicans get many more votes than predicted in the opinion polls. That is, in areas where electronic voting machines are used. The Republicans will retain a majority in Congress. The Democrats will once more accept the results, and the American people will lose even more of what is left of their democracy because they'll once more fail to fight to retain true democracy.

Both the literal and sarcastic versions of the scenario are entirely possible, but given (a) the increased evidence of shenanigans in the last national election, (b) the added attention to the vulnerability of electronic voting machines in the last month or so, (c) the energy and anger of the center and left in the US right now, and (d) the overwhelming consensus of polls about the public mood, I wouldn't expect the American public at large to roll over and accept those results so easily.


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