Electronic Voting Machines are a Bad Idea. Period.

It seems that more and more elected officials across the country are realizing that we need paper trails to accompany our electronic voting machines. It’s really too bad that they just don’t get it.

The problem, you see, isn’t that people don’t have a receipt. It’s that fundamentally, any computerized process for tallying voting allows widespread manipulation of the vote in sufficient quantity to turn the results of an election. With paper ballots hand counted or counted by a simple mechanical optical scanner, the results of an election really will be accurately tallied (up to the statistical error margin of the counting process, that is). Paper ballots are verifiable and hard to forge in mass.

A computer program tally is impossible to prove correct. There’s nothing to prevent a computer program from printing a receipt for the vote you placed, but internally deciding to increment the vote for a different candidate. There’s no assurance that the receipt matches the tallied vote.

In a close election, only a small number of votes would need to be changed to tip an election one way or the other. In the 2000 election, for instance, a voting machine would have to falsify just a couple hundred votes for another candidate to win.

But wait, you say, that would mean that someone would have to maliciously write the software to fiddle with the votes. Why, in the world would someone do that? Um, aside from being able to seize control of the government of the most powerful nation in the world, I can’t think of a single reason. By the way, the President of Diebold, makers of many of the electronic voting machines in use, is a highly partisan Bush “ranger,” who has publicly said he would “deliver Ohio’s electoral votes to Bush.” He certainly didn’t mean to imply any shady dealings by Diebold, but I’d feel a lot better if the voting machines were made by a neutral third party.

Some folks say that revealing copies of the voting machine software to public scrutiny will be sufficient to insure accuracy. This is simply not true. If you believe source code lets you verify behavior, check out this famous article from the ACM showing how source code can be trivially made to look innocent and contain hidden sabotage.

So when electronic voting machines come to your neighborhood, just vote No. If we can spend $100 billion on a war to bring democracy to a dictatorship, we can certainly spend a few tens of millions paying to hand-count ballots. It’s worth it to preserve democracy. Besides, it would be good work for some of the 1.2 million people who have been laid off in the last few years.

Electronic voting machines are a bad idea. Period.…

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