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December 18, 2003
Voting in the 21st century

I enjoy reading Avedon Carol, and today is no exception but there's one point that I never see anyone discuss about the dangers of electronic voting machines. ( * )

Everyone always acts like getting the machine to print a "paper ballot" is going to prove there's nothing wacky in computerland, but that's just not so. The fixation on paper ballots strikes me as na´ve and short-sighted.

Even I, complete computer novice that I am, can envision a system programmed to print a ballot that reflects actual voter entries while, deep inside the system, the "votes" are parceled out between different candidates based on a pre-established weighting system, regardless of the voter's intent.

Only if you collect and count the paper ballots and compare them to the machine tallies every time will you know that the electronic count is accurate. Because a computer can be "reprogrammed" electronically if the right connection to it exists and since it seems evident that some kind of remote monitoring/trouble-shooting systems will be installed, you'll never know from one voting day to the next if a machine has been tampered with unless you count the actual votes. (Since these electronic votes will be transmitted to a central area electronically, you're also going to need significant checks and balances to prove that the numbers generated by the central area do, in fact, match the local or regional totals.)

Maybe I'm more cynical than anyone else, but my dislike of the electronic voting machine idea goes much, much deeper than my objection to the lack of a paper trail. There are times when technology is not an advantage and it strikes me that the voting booth is a moment for old-fashioned pencil-and-paper.

I mean, we've already seen Orwellian attempts to rewrite history by purging the 'evidence' of events unpopular with the government, haven't we?

And what about those electronically purged Florida voter rolls? Doesn't that worry anyone any more?

( * Ouch. Avedon Carol quite right objected that my coverage of the Sideshow's "electronic voting" post was inaccurate.

The truth is, they said they were taking our servers down for a few minutes here at the office, so I did a quick cut-and-paste of the post so I could read it off-line, and never realized that I didn't capture the entire thing.

I don't believe in revisionism, so I'm leaving this up, but I do offer Avedon Carol my sincere apologies.)

Posted by AnneZook at 09:29 AM


I think overall you don't need to compare paper with electronic unless the outcome is in some measure of dispute. Even today I would imagine the percentage of disputed elections in the US is still relatively small. Although I do think some states (*cough* brother Jeb *cough*) are more susceptible to shenanigans than others...

Posted by: Elayne Riggs at December 18, 2003 09:39 AM

I'll withhold comment on actual events to avoid bloodshed; I think Glenn Reynolds is 100% correct about the best way to vote: paper ballots. They're easy to make, they're easy to fill out (usually), and they're easy to verify after the fact. No hanging chads, no questions of electronic tampering, just look at the ballots and you can tell how people voted. I'm a big technophile, but I think when it comes to voting, keeping it simple is the wisest course.

Posted by: Andrew at December 18, 2003 10:23 AM

Elayne - The problem that that the kind of computer manipulation I suggested means that an election might not be "disputed" in that the vote might not be registered as 'close enough' to trigger a state's automatic recount process.

As far as "shenanigans" - who defines a situation where "shenanigans" are likely and who pays to defend them against the inevitable lawsuits? I don't want to leave it in partisan hands to decide when there's a "dispute" because there almost always would be.

I don't want either (any) party doing that kind of thing. I want one, reliable vote, not an endless session of childish squabbling and name-calling that goes on until the public loses interest.

What I'd like, Andrew, are systems that don't allow the kind of lingering anger over perceived misdoing that we saw in 2000.

Like you, I love technology but I'm a fan of pen and paper. A reasonably well designed ballot is easy to read and putting a checkmark in a box next to a name is a simple task.

I don't thing the "price" we pay for sticking with paper ballots (waiting 12-24 hours to find out the "winner" of an election is too high.

Posted by: Anne at December 18, 2003 10:55 AM

But Anne, I have addressed that issue, and in fact I allude to it in the same post you linked - that's why I ended it by saying ballots should be counted by hand.

Posted by: Avedon at December 18, 2003 08:20 PM

Okay, I'm busted. :) My apologies that I didn't realize until today that I hadn't seen your entire post.

Posted by: Anne at December 19, 2003 08:57 AM

No problem - the more people who are discussing this problem, the better. I keep getting the feeling I am the only person who has been talking about the importance of paper ballots and whether we can trust machines to count them, so I'm just glad you're doing it, too.

Posted by: Avedon at December 19, 2003 12:04 PM