Why Can't America Vote Right?

Thursday Feb 7th 2008 by Mike Elgan

Computers can save democracy, if only we give up our affection for paper ballots.

Democracy in America is in trouble. For some reason we can't figure out how to cast votes and count them without blunders, inaccuracy and stupidity.

In the past few decades, the simple act of voting in the United States has been characterized by malfunctioning voting machines, hanging chads, damaged, unreadable or lost ballots and gross ineptitude.

In the Super Tuesday election cycle, the sheer quantity of news reports about ballot problems prove a widespread but multifaceted crisis.

Worst of all, a consensus seems to be forming that computers or electronic ballots are to blame, and that the solution is paper-based voting.

The Myth of Paper Voting

All votes are counted, processed and stored by computers. There's no such thing as paper-based elections anymore. The questions are: 1) how are the votes are entered into the computers; and 2) is a record left behind that can be read by a human in cases where you need to re-check or prove the vote?

We retain the illusion of paper balloting because the input device is a piece of paper. We record binary data (Hillary Clinton yes-or-no) on dead tree pulp, then hand it over to amateur volunteers. After we've left the polling station, machines scan these cards into computers, where the numbers are transmitted electronically to other computers, which tabulate and store the data.

The only "paper" part of this process is that we use paper cards to input the data into computers, rather than letting voters do it directly.

How Computers Can Save Democracy

Nearly all criticism of electronic ballots are really about the bad decisions made in the creation of these system -- not about the use of computerized ballots in principle.

The biggest criticism is that electronic ballots don't "leave a paper trail." Another is that they're insecure and can be tampered with.

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The problem with these criticisms is that computers can easily print paper, and can easily be made more secure and tamper-proof than our current punch-it-and-scan-it system.

Here's my proposal:

• Each ballot booth should contain an integrated touch-screen voting system that has two completely redundant functioning machines, so that if one fails the other takes over.

• The machine should not be able to store "user data" (vote choices).

• As soon as the voter makes his or her choices, the result should be printed out on a card, both clearly human-readable and also machine-readable (with something like a barcode). The electronic ballot machine should ask the voter if the card is correct.

• If the voter presses "yes," the data for their vote is transmitted instantly, securely and with uncrackable encryption off the machine, to the state's central system if possible or to a secure storage unit onsite. Once that transmission of data is verified, the machine should purge and overwrite the data locally, then ask the voter to fold the paper printout in half and drop it in a secure box outside the booth.

• If the voter presses "no" (saying the printed card is incorrect), the machine should ask the voter to insert the card, where it is verified, then shredded. The voter gets a do-over.

• The ballots and onsite recording servers should be plugged in during use, but should contain batteries in the event of power failure.

• It should be required by law that every polling station have twice as many machines as needed, so in the event of problems, malfunctioning machines can be swapped out for good ones without any requirement for a technical person.

The Case For Electronic Ballots

The advantages of computerized ballot boxes are overwhelming. Computers can better serve the site-impaired, the disabled and those who speak other languages other than English far better than current systems. They're more accurate if you design them correctly, and much faster.

Best of all, the system I've proposed provides all the benefits of computerized voting with all the benefits of so-called paper voting. And voters can verify the felicity of their "paper trail" before leaving the voting station. It eliminates the ambiguity of "hanging chads" and other weird problems associated with Victorian-era technologies. Votes can be tabulated instantly, because there's no additional scanning process to get data into the computer systems. It's all verifiable by machine scanning recounts or, if necessary, ballot-by-ballot manual counting, using the very pieces of paper approved by the voters.

Our current warm-and-fuzzy feeling about "paper voting" is based on delusion. Current systems -- whether paper or electronic -- are deeply flawed. Let's stop messing around with our democracy and use the best tools at our disposal to fix this disgusting mess.

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