WITHER CHICANERY?

If I may go all Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for a moment, I believe that the single most important aspect of any election is that, regardless of whether or not my preferred candidate wins, the outcome is widely accepted as legitimate. Elections decided in court are tremendously harmful to the political process. It is very, very important that at the end of Election Day one side says "Hey, we won!" and the other says "Yup, we lost." Our entire system is founded on this simple nod to legitimacy. The losers do not, as so often happens in troubled parts of the world, arm themselves to the teeth and revolt in open warfare because they lost. Our political process needs to work like a boxing match – beat the hell out of one another until the bell rings and then embrace afterwards as a sign of mutual respect.

For all the talk about the potential for voter fraud in 2008, the election largely went off without a hitch. I encourage you to correct me and cite an example if there is a "Diebold Surprise" story that I missed. In my voracious consumption of all things election related over the past week I have come away with the impression that both sides believe that the results accurately reflect the vote. With the exception of the fringe-right (who are going to rant about how ACORN and homeless black illegal immigrant crackheads stole the election no matter what) the outcome is not in dispute.

As an avowed electronic voting machine skeptic, I admit being surprised by this turn of events. Even in Pennsylvania, with its Keystone (see what I did there?) Kops transition from paper to touch screens, what issues arose never escalated beyond the level of inconvenience. Here in Indiana we executed our third straight touch-screen election without a hitch. Many other jurisdictions did likewise. Has electronic voting been vindicated?

Well, yes and no.

After a good deal of reflection I've realized that electronic voting does some things at least as well as paper and even does a few things better. It certainly makes counting easier. Many voters note that there is something "unsatisfying" about just pushing buttons rather than holding something tangible – a product of one's efforts – and dropping it in the lock box. Personally, I can't shake the "Does anything actually happen when I press this button?" feeling. But the more I thought about it, all voting is a black box (pun intended). Just as I have no idea whether or not this electronic machine actually submits a vote when I hit the buttons, I have no idea where my ballot goes when I drop it in the box. For all I know the EVM isn't even connected to anything; for all I know my paper ballot is thrown into a dumpster and burned after I walk away. Maybe it gets lost. Maybe one of the 153 year old poll workers spills coffee and Poli-Dent all over my ballot and it becomes unreadable. I have been operating under lousy logic in believing that electronic voting is any more mysterious than the alternative.

Unfortunately it is very easy to stand in the glow of an election which largely went off without a hitch and say "Hey, EVMs are pretty cool after all!" It's tempting but should be resisted because the fatal flaw in the system is latent. The system either works very well (as in 2008) or, when something inevitably goes wrong one of these years, it is a complete disaster. There isn't much middle ground. When the system fails there is no safety net. Eventually there will be a "whoops, the results got erased somehow" moment and only then will it be apparent – ah, so this is why this was a bad idea all along.

I'm glad that things went smoothly this year, but to use this as impetus to change my feelings about electronic voting would be the Survivor's Bias in action – everything worked out so I guess the system is OK. That is poor logic. Say what you will about paper and punch cards, but such ballots can be re-counted. They can be kept in boxes for posterity. With EVMs, votes which are not properly recorded for whatever reason are simply gone. The criteria for choosing a voting method cannot be how it performs under ideal circumstances; it must be how the system reacts when everything is inexorably fucked up. Paper, for all its flaws, wins because it is more robust under uncertainty. The real danger with EVMs is not insidious hackers altering election results as so many of us have feared – it is the all-or-nothing nature of the system, a flaw that will be all too apparent when random, unpredictable error inevitably strikes.

6 thoughts on “WITHER CHICANERY?”

  • I saw a demo (a mockup of the software) of an open source electronic voting system. The electronic part was to help the voter make the proper selections and review them. Then in the end, it printed a scannable ballot that you double checked and placed in the scanner or lock box.

    Also, I read an article last week from someone that was converted to the idea that mail in ballots were best, because they eliminate many polling place problems, like lines, old decrepit poll workers, and allow you to take time with a ballot. Filling them out at home essentially gives you the ability to google more info about each candidate/proposition as you vote.

    I am very happy with mail in voting here in WA state because of these very reasons. Who knows, maybe the best method would be a hybrid where we use a government website to vote the ballot, print out the scannable ballot that you just filled out, then mail it in.

  • Ed-

    I had many of your same concerns about EVM machines last year, and chose to vote by paper ballot instead. However, this year only EVM were available for early voters, so I had no choice. I was pleased to see that we have the type of machine that prints a physical receipt as you make selections (and yes, I did take time to check that it was accurately recording my choices).

    This greatly alleviated my concerns with the machines we use. There are still problems, but they would tend to be more along the lines of some massive failure of the machines to accept votes (either a result of the incompetent or the insidious, the odds of which I suspect are approximately equal).

    Thoughts?

  • I still have my doubts about the EVM's. If they can put a printer on an ATM, they could put a printer on an EVM. Regardless of how people vote, that saying by Stalin still holds true. "It doesn't matter who votes in an election. What matters is who counts the votes." It still could be that there was voter fraud using the EVM's but the turnout was overwhelmingly for Obama and he got more votes than they could steal!!

  • Well, put that way, you could as easily surmise that voter turnout was irrelevant. The election was simply a matter of who could steal more votes. Could the Dems out-steal the GOP? Vice-versa?

    Given the accuracy of the now vindicated polls, I tend to believe there was little hanky-panky going on and what did go on had little or no effect.

  • In the weeks leading up to the election, the public access TV channel in Philadelphia looped an instructional video on how to operate the EVMs (with the intended audience being poll workers). The PA EVMs not only record the votes digitally; they also record the votes on cash-register-esque paper spools. In triplicate. The poll workers need to periodically check that the paper backups are correctly being recorded, signing off on them. After the election the paper backup votes are still counted by hand (presumably to double-check the electronic count). Finally, the electronic cartridge and two of the paper backups are sent to Harrisburg. Therefore, I'm reasonably confident that hackery and miscounting are not a problem.

    The only problem I can see is that, since voters have no way of validating what is actually written to the memory cartridge or to the paper spools, they have no way of knowing whether or not the mechanism between their finger and the recording medium is correct.

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