Voting Against Technology

Long ago I had a teacher who introduced his class on software design with a story.

He was directing a workshop in software QA and posed the following question to the participants, teachers of computer programming. If they were in a plane and told that the plane was being flown by software written by their students, how many would stay on the plane. A lone hand rose. “If my students wrote the program,” he explained, “that plane would never leave the ground.”

I was reminded of that story when I went to vote today and got an eye-opening lesson in the deficiencies of electronic voting systems.

Since I first registered to vote in 1972 (full disclosure: my first vote was cast for George McGovern) only once have I had trouble voting.

That was in 1976 when the Broome County NY Board of Elections discovered that if voter information was mailed to SUNY Binghamton students before the start of the school term, lots of mail would come back “not at this address.” The college students could then be stricken from the voter rolls and the county would remain a safe Republican redoubt.

But there was never a problem casting the actual ballot. I have voted on antediluvian mechanical machines. I have voted on chad-bearing punch card systems. I voted on electronic voting machines when they were first introduced in my district. All without trouble. Until today.

I arrived at the polling place early and already there was a sizable crowd. When I got to the voting booth I put the plastic card in. The machine spit it out.

“Put it in again,” instructed the poll worker. This time the card was accepted.

I “touched” my choices – poked and punched would be more accurate. The touch screens were anything but sensitive to touch. I made my choices and reviewed them.

In two races no choice was registered. I went back and did it again. And again. And again. Still no selection registered. One of the races was for the local school board and the woman running for the seat was someone I know and had encouraged to run. So I had a personal investment here.

The poll worker came over. “De-select them and try again.” Still, no dice. She called the Board of Elections. And got put on hold. Apparently this wasn’t an isolated problem. When she got through they had no suggestions, either, except to back out my vote and have me start over at a different machine.

At that point I voted against technology and asked for a paper ballot.

You might think that, after that the machine would be taken offline. You would be wrong. Instead, it was put back into service and the last I heard — after filling out my paper ballot 45 minutes later — was, “Excuse me, there seems to be a problem with this machine.”

Those of us in the tech business know that the technology and know-how exist to make electronic voting perform reliably and securely. But as a society we don’t think that’s as important as, for example, the integrity of credit card transactions.

There’s no lack of ideas and talent out there to apply to this problem. A good first step would be to take voting out of the hands of the technology industrial complex, making it open instead of proprietary,as Arthur Keller, visiting associate professor of computer science at UC Santa Cruz, suggested to me several years ago when these machines first debuted.

In the meantime, I don’t know about you, but I’m asking for a paper ballot.

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  • PhoneBoy

    I vote absentee so I can avoid these problems, among others. In fact, in the county were I live, 75% or more vote absentee. Enough that they decided to close down the polling places for most elections.

  • marcelo

    Here in SF, the left pinkie nail of the high-tech peninsula, the garage I voted in early this am only had paper ballots: five sheets of them, each more than legal-sized in length and double-sided. I had my 18-month-old daughter in my arms and it took me 45 minutes to get through it all. Even after reading your column, and even after watching “Hacking Democracy on HBO a couple of days ago, I found myself wishing for a touch-screen.

  • lonnie

    I, too, am an absentee voter in 3 out of 4 elections. I don’t mind the idea of using technology to make voting easier, more convenient, more efficient, all of those things technology is supposed to bring to life, but I think it’s imperative we take voting technology out of the hands of proprietary interests like Diebold, and that we also require voter-verifiable paper records of all machines used to process votes in our elections.

    Our democracy is too fragile and the split between those who consider themselves “red” and those who consider themselves “blue” too deep for there not to be absolute faith and integrity in the electoral process.

    Hey, there’s an idea for the new majority party’s legislative “agenda”!