Electronic Voting Machine vendors denigrate doubters

S Aufrecht

To Register Doubts, Press Here - The New York Times

“When you’re dealing with computer scientists, they deal in a world of theoretics, and under that scenario anything is possible,” Ms. Bonsall [director of the Federal Election Commission’s Office of Election Administration] said. “If you probe a little further, the chance of these failures, the risk of that happening wide-scale in a national election is almost nil.”

… Paul Terwilliger, director of product development at Sequoia Voting Systems, … “I think the concerns being raised are 100 percent valid,” Mr. Terwilliger said. “However, they’re being raised by people who have little idea about what actually goes on.”

Here’s a bit about what actually went on in 2002:
Florida voters, including Gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno, experienced delays (ranging from minutes to hours) due to touchscreen machines not working properly or at all. Reno, and others (including Duval County officials) reportedly sought court orders requesting additional time for the day’s voting session. Governor Jeb Bush granted a two hour extension, but some of the polling places did not receive notice and shut down their machines at 7PM, only to discover that restart was impossible because of the way the machines had been designed.

In addition to polls and machines that opened late, many precincts reported problems with some electronic cards voters used to activate their ballots. A few machines in Miami-Dade County reset themselves while voters were trying to vote. Even the mark-sense ballots proved troublesome – in Orange County many votes will have to be hand-counted because defects made them unreadable by the optical scanners. (Mercuri, Rebecca. Florida Primary 2002: Back to the Future)

A computer glitch in South Florida’s Broward County caused 103,222 ballots not to be counted on election night, but the missing votes did not affect the outcome of any races, county officials said Thursday. (CNN. Election glitch missed 103,000 votes in Florida county)

Alabama had a contested 2002 Governor’s election for about two weeks, with the encumbent governor and all counties calling for a recount of the 3,000 margin vote. There were accusations of election fraud which were never withdrawn or, I think, adequately pursued by the press.

This is a brief & very incomplete synopsis of what happened after the Alabama Governor’s election.. … (Voting machine glitch not pursued by press)

Some touch-screen machines in Florida and Georgia were misprogrammed or not accurately calibrated. Others froze and had to be rebooted, and cards voters need to access machines malfunctioned. Problems were quickly corrected and, at worst, only lengthened lines. (Associated Press)

Two things make me throw up my hands in disgust. First, the optimal solution is obvious and proven but ignored by snake-oil voting machine vendors. The optimal solution is standardized paper ballots marked with pens and counted by machines. The error rate is extremely low; counting and recounting are fast; the forensic trail is very easy to follow; the poll-worker training is minimal; the technology is proven and cheap. I would change only one things from the machines used in my (urban, white, middle-class) precint: after I put my ballot into the machine, I would like to see a screen appear showing all of my votes. Then I would hit a cancel or an approve button. If I cancelled, the paper would be voided and I would start over.

The second thing is that we still use winner-takes-all voting for most elections in this country even though it’s long been mathematically proven to be one of the worst ways to capture the democratic wishes of a population. Why isn’t there more noise for voting reform? Even if we don’t want to go parliamentary, just changing from winner-takes-all to instant runoff would be a simple but dramatic improvement.

How come the sleazy vendors never use connections and back-room dealing to get out the good solution? I understand how power companies want to evade pollution controls forever, because they can make a few extra pennies per share and the tens and thousands of premature deaths don’t really affect the executives much, and of course the car manufacturers resist every safety improvement and fuel efficiency standard because they would potentially lose a bit of money for a year or two - these systemic failures are easily derived from the Tragedy of the Commons. But why don’t the paper ballot counting machine vendors fight the paperless jerks? Why can’t we harness their greed for the greater good (which is really the best systemic solution we have for most social problems)?