Technology and the right to vote

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Midland Daily News, September 28, 2004

One aspect of this country's political life has always been the right to vote, even though this right was restricted in the early days to men only. We have come a long way since then to enfranchise the former slaves and women. We finally lowered the minimum voting age to 18 and have allowed non-property owners to vote on millages. Poll taxes and strict voting tests have been abandoned. 

 

It is a sad commentary on our democratic system that as more and more people obtained the right to vote, fewer and fewer people actually vote. We are excited when the voter turn out approaches 60 percent in a presidential election and are seldom appalled when that turnout for school board is a mere 5 percent or less. And that's a percent of the people who are registered to vote. Millions don't even bother to register. Those statistics are all the more reason why we need to vote and how important one vote is.

Electronic voting machines

Americans are fascinated with technology. That technology is moving into the voting arena through Direct Recording Electronic voting machines (DRE or e-voting). In order to clean up the mess of "hanging chads" in the 2000 presidential election, companies are making machines so that it will be easy to vote by touching a screen for the candidates and proposals we favor. But hanging chads would be welcome compared to the dangers lurking in e-voting.

About 30 percent of the electorate - 50 million voters or so - will be e-voting in the coming November elections using paperless machines. Paperless voting means there is no verifiable way to count or recount the ballots. The election results depend entirely on the DRE.

In North Carolina's 2002 general election, six DREs  erroneously had stopped counting votes even while the polls were still open and deleted 436 electronic ballots. In Florida this year for a House seat DREs recorded 134 cast ballots as blank. Were they actually blank or were they not recorded properly? 12 votes determined the winner.

In 2000, a DRE machine was taken out of service in New Jersey, because it was discovered that, out of 65 votes cast, no votes were recorded for the Democrat and Republican candidates for one office, even though 27 votes each were recorded for their running mates. And there was no way to verify what happened.

According to verifiedvoting.org computer scientists are worried about the DREs because they know that a beginner programmer can make the machine record differently than what is shown on the screen. Even our everyday experience of using a computer tells us errors occur. That's why people tell us incessantly to back up our data. With paperless DREs there is no "backup" and no way to find or verify the information that was entered by voters.

Electionline.org has raised concern about hackers getting into the system. Another concern is the deliberate subterfuge of a disgruntled employee. Once again, paper ballot verification would alleviate these concerns.

Subtitle: Help America Vote

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was signed into law by President Bush on October 29, 2002 as a result of the Florida fiasco in 2000. According to the Michigan Secretary of State's website, HAVA mandates that voting equipment proposed by vendors must a) permit voters to verify their ballots and change their votes before the ballots are cast b) notify voters when errors are made on the ballots and provide them with an opportunity to cast new ballots to correct the errors and c) provide alternate language accessibility.

The Michigan Secretary of State's website, in describing the new voting machines for which Michigan is seeking bids, says "the paper ballot is then secured in a storage bin where it remains until the polls close." The Invitation to Bid says, "The system shall … permit recounts to be conducted…."  Clearly Michigan is requesting machines that provide paper ballot verification. It is not required by HAVA, however, so proposals are in both the US House (HR2239) and US Senate (S2437) to make this a requirement.

 

Let's be on guard to make sure our votes are recorded and counted in a verifiable way all over the country. Keep an eye on HR2239 and S2437.

 

Norbert Bufka is a Midland resident and occasional contributor to the Midland Daily News. He can be reached by email at Norbert@tm.net.