Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Can't beat pencil and paper

Americans are voting in massive numbers today, many of them on electronic voting machines that have been malfunctioning throughout the day, delaying voters.

There are many things wrong with American democracy these days, including the dependence on money and the continuing debasing of public discourse as a result of vicious, personal, hateful Republican attack ads. But electronic voting machines have the potential not just to change how people vote, but to undermine the integrity of the very process itself. Don't forget that the CEO of Diebold, the company making most of these voting machines, promised in 2003 to "deliver" Ohio's electoral votes to President Bush; Bush won the election in Ohio, by 2%, with people casting ballots on voting machines that do not produce a paper record with which to verify each vote.

This is the most dangerous aspect of the machines - instead of producing immediately a slip of paper with each ballot counted, a physical record that the machine might keep in reserve, to be counted if necessary, all the information about the vote is recorded electronically. So anyone with access to the hardware could quite easily manipulate the machines to distort the vote subtly, within the margin of error of any polls, but enough to swing tight races.

Even if such tampering does not take place, the inevitable problems with this technology opens to door to legal challenges of close result, and given the blatant politicization of the judiciary in the United States, so shamefully on display in Bush v. Gore, that is something to be avoided.

What I don't understand is why this is an issue in the first place. Why are we so obssessed with using technology when we don't need to? Granted, U.S. ballots are nothing like our ballots - in Presidential elections, people also have to vote for Senate and House candidates, as well as ballot initiatives (oh direct democracy), as well as candidates for state offices. Nevertheless, as someone who has counted fairly long ballots at King's (a good comparison, I know), I can attest that while long ballots can be a pain, they're by no means unmanegeable to do by hand, and given the (genuine) spirit of democracy in America, there could certainly be found the necessary people to count and scrutinize ballots by hand, even if it would mean more volunteers per capita. The price would be small; the benefit - not having to worry if your democracy is being stolen from you - significant. Pencil. Paper. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best.


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